For the past several weeks, big chunks of French life have been paralyzed with a cascade of strikes by what was known in the pre-Thatcher era as “flying pickets”. These are units of specially trained tough guys recruited and trained by the general Confederation of Workers (CGT), the trade union wing of the French Communist Party (PCF).
Their mission is to prevent employees of sensitive sectors of the economy from reaching their place of work, thus, imposing a wave of disruptions on the nation through ripple effect. The excuse for these guerrilla-style operations is a new draft law presented by the Socialist Government of President Francois Hollande.
After months of negotiations, all trade unions, with the exception of the CGT, have accepted the new draft with some amendments. The CGT says it won’t settle for anything less than the total withdrawal of the draft. To achieve that, the CGT leaders say they are going to go “as far as needed”, even if it means plunging the national economy into recession.
Because French things are never simple, the CGT’s war on the national economy comes at a time when the nation is supposed to be under a State of Emergency, imposed in the wake of last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Outsiders might wonder what kind of emergency allows a few dozen “flying pickets” to hold the country to ransom.
Before we tackle that question a few more points must be made.
To start with the proposed draft, presented by its authors as a reform of France’s rigid labour laws, is no such thing. Even if fully implemented it would still leave France on top of a European Union list for asking its workers to work less, earn more and enjoy protections that the British, not to mention the Poles, could only dream of.
The draft tries to achieve two things.The first is to allow employers to negotiate triennial rosters with the unions so that workers would work more when the company’s order books are full and less when business is slack. In any case, the total of hours worked could not exceed 35 a week which has been the legal norm since the 1990s.
The second proposal is to allow deals between employers and employees within each enterprise with more than 50 workers, albeit within limits of agreements negotiated by trade unions, at the level of each sector of the economy.
But how does CGT manage to defy the state in a State of Emergency, paralyze the economy and, at the time of this writing, simply get away with it.
The reason is not CGT popularity with the so-called working class. In fact, the “syndicate”, as it is called in French, is estimated to have around 400,000 members out of a labour force of 30 million. The Communist Party, the CGT’s political twin, collected around 1 per cent of the votes in the latest presidential election in 2012.
So, how do they do it? The answer is what students of Stalinism call “The Spanish Ladies’ Fan”.
We all know the kind of fan used by medieval Castilian belles to hide and reveal their faces, especially when doing the paso doble. As the lady dances she reveals more of her face by fingering aside part of the fan. In the final act she presses the spring in the middle of the fan to open it completely, revealing the whole of her face, transfixing the caballero.
The political version of the Spanish ladies fan provides for starting with a number of small-scale strikes; let’s call them teasers, to test the waters, before proceeding to larger shut-downs, producing an avalanche of disruptions on the way to the crescendo of a general strike.
In the “Spanish fan” style of strikes you start by blocking oil refineries, crippling the railway and urban Metro networks, closing air and sea ports and even stopping publication of the press.
Last month for example the CGT stopped all Paris newspapers, except one, from being printed because they refused to publish a whole page article by union leader Philippe Martinez justifying the “Spanish fan” strikes. The only paper allowed to publish was L’Humanite, the organ of the Communist Party of France (CPF).
In 1995, the CGT even shut down the state-owned radio and television networks according to an old plan of the defunct Soviet Union which was to be put into operation if and when the USSR went to war against NATO (of which France is a member).
Since the 1920s the CPF and its union wing have used the tactic on numerous occasions, often with success. In the past decade or so they used the “fan” to crush attempts by premiers Alain Juppe (1997), and Dominique de Villepin (2007), to introduce similar reforms.
The tactic was initially worked out by the Communist International (Komintern) in the 1920s when the newly established Bolshevik regime in Moscow, fearing attacks by capitalist powers, looked for means of weakening potential foes from within.
In 1919, less than two years after seizing power, Lenin decided to break from the Socialist International, which he regarded as “bourgoisified” and set up his own network. The aim was the “bolshevizification” of Socialist parties in Europe, notably France and Germany. That led to splits within the labor movement in Europe and led to the creation of the French Communist Party (CPF) after the Congress of Tours.
A master tactician, Lenin knew that his “party of the vanguard of proletariat” could never come to power through any kind of free elections, leaving the use of revolutionary force as the sole alternative. In his famous pamphlet “The April Thesis” he had already called for focusing on small elite groups with the slogan “Better few, but better!” But where should we look for the “better few”?
The answer was provided by the first two heads of the Komintern Grigori Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin in terse manuals. The new Communist parties in capitalist countries had to focus on building networks of influence, sympathy and active support in “neuralgic sectors”.
That meant the intelligentsia, the media, academia and strategic industries such as public transport, power generation, sea and air ports, oil and gas refineries, and armament factories. Special attention was given to building networks in the public sector because employees could not be easily dismissed there. Using a mixture of intimidation, fascination and psychological or even material bribery, the hardcore “vanguard” would develop a wider support base thanks to “useful idiots”, well-meaning but ill-informed citizens who would join any fight for “justice and equality.”
The man charged by Komintern to apply that theory in France was the Czech Bolshevik Eugen Fried who played godfather to both the CPF and the CGT. Fried was also instrumental in shaping the Popular Font coalition government of 1937 that introduced major social reforms in France. In time, Komintern recruited and trained French-born agents, notably Jacques Duclos, Andre Marty and Maurice Thorez who was to become Secretary-General of the CPF.
Zinoviev and Bukharin were executed by Stalin in the 1930s purges and Komintern was formally disbanded in 1943 when Stalin had joined the Allies in World War II. Lenin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was disbanded in 1991 and almost all Communist parties in the West disappeared- all but a miniaturized PCF.
In other words, the world changed, rendering the Stalinist “Spanish Ladies’ Fan” tactic redundant, for everyone, except a truncated CGT, a ghost that still haunts France with the threat of opening the incendiary fan with a sudden swish.