The Street Speaks in France: Interview with Besancenot

Interview with Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), one of the political players in the recent upsurge within France.

The original article "Besancenot : 'Bloquer l'économie pour bloquer la réforme'" was published in Le Monde on 19 October 2010. The interview is moderated by Caroline Monnot. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi. Also available on MRZine.

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Esteban: Hello, this Tuesday's 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?

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?

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 3 million demonstrators, does the street have the same legitimacy as an elected parliament?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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"?

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?

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.

3% 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% 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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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) CGT demos"?

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?

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?

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?

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 Che said, hasta la victoria siempre!

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Radical Eyes

    A very solid interview.

    Especially considering the relatively hostile questioning.

    A really exciting development.

  • Guest - Rowan Milwid

    I live and work in France, and I can tell you that this article should get a follow up from someone who speaks for the "majority" of French people, not the "minority" that are behind these protests. Besancenot hides behind a screen of political ideology when defending their actions. For the record, I am not a right winger, but having knowledge of what's really going on here I cannot support these people. Those protesting, for the most part, are an elite of sorts. They are the people who have very unequal social benefits including retirement. There is a great divide between the civil servants and certain union employees and the rest of the French population. The so called "private sector" in France is a huge grey area. France has, fortunately, maintained an absolutely massive number of family run businesses and small trades people. This is great because we can find little bakeries, flower shops, butchers, restaurants, etc on every corner. But these people, along with employees in small and medium sized businesses do not get a fair shake in France. They are treated like the "enemy" by these anti-capitalists as if they were big corporations with deep pockets. They are highly taxed and get significantly less for unemployment, retirement, etc. SIGNIFICANTLY LESS. So essentially, those protesting are protesting to keep an unfair advantage over those less fortunate in society ... all the while calling themselves socialists. It stinks of hypocrisy and does not deserve support.

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