April 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
In January a number of strikes broke out in the French motor industry resulting in a shortfall, for Renault, of some 42,000 vehicles. This worried the government, both because of the loss of production and as it was clear that the dispute would be settled only by a wage increase above the 8 per cent norm they had laid down for 1983.
In other circumstances the government would have blamed “communists” (as Harold Wilson did when confronted with the seamen’s strike in 1966) but this propaganda ploy was not open to the French government since it included four ministers from the Communist Party. But another scapegoat was to hand. It so happens that the majority of shopfloor workers in Renault’s two factories in the Paris area are immigrants, mainly Moroccans and Algerians from North Africa. At Flins, the centre of the strike, 53 per cent of the 17,000 shopfloor workers are immigrants while at Billancourt the figure is 55 per cent of 12,000.
The campaign was opened by the Minister of the Interior, Gaston Deferre, who declared in a television debate on 26 January that there was a “special phenomenon" in the conflicts in the car industry: “Fundamentalists, Shiites are involved". The next day the Prime Minister himself, Pierre Mauroy, joined in. claiming that immigrant workers were “being stirred up by religious and political groups which decide their policies by criteria which have little to do with French social realities”.
After the strike at Renault was over (resulting in provision for an 11 per cent wage increase, without productivity strings, for three-quarters of the workforce in 1983) and after a conflict has broken out at a Citroen factory near Paris, the Minister of Labour, Jean Auroux, returned to the charge, alleging that the strikes were not purely industrial and that workers had sworn on the Koran to be loyal to their union (in the event the “communist”-led CGT!). He went even further:
Some people have an interest in the political or social destabilisation of our country. . . Certain forces in France and in the world arc seeking to make us fail but we are vigilant.
A newspaper comment, probably inspired by the Ministry of Labour, added:
The underlying fear of the Minister is that fundamentalist agitators arc using Islam to manipulate immigrant workers, destabilise the French car industry and disturb social peace in the country (Républicain Lorrain, 11 February 1983).
Who are these Muslim fundamentalists who want to stir up social trouble in France for the benefit of some foreign power? The mind boggles at the possibilities. Deferre spoke of “Shiites”, the Muslim sect whose spiritual leader is the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian government might well have reason to want to destabilise France since France has committed itself wholeheartedly in favour of Iraq (supplying arms, buying petrol) in the Gulf War. However, the trouble is that the Shiite sect is unknown in North Africa and there is probably not a single Shiite employed in any car factory in the whole of France!
Then there is Colonel Gaddafi whose expansionist ambitions have brought him into conflict with French imperialist interests in Africa, just as stoutly defended by Mitterand as previously by Giscard. Another possibility might be Ben Bella, one of the leaders of the FLN during the Algerian war and first President of Algeria from 1962 until he was overthrown and imprisoned in an Army coup in 1965. He emerged from prison in 1980 a Muslim fundamentalist. As if to point the finger at him. in the middle of the strikes the police raided the house he uses when he visits France, found some armed guards, arrested one of them for a bank robbery and expelled the others to Italy.
But there is not the slightest shred of evidence to back up the government’s smears. Despite Mauroy’s claim, the strikes clearly had their origin in “French social realities”: in the atrocious working conditions, lack of promotion prospects, and low wages (aggravated by the recent wage freeze) which workers in car factories have to suffer under capitalism.
Perhaps some workers did swear loyalty to the CGT on the Koran (for doing the equivalent of which six farm labourers at Tolpuddle were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia in . . . 1834). But this would merely be a way of strengthening solidarity among workers with little experience of trade unionism and strikes. As to the suggestion of an international Muslim plot against France involving Khomeini, Gaddafi and Ben Bella, it would be hard to invent a sillier story. The government dearly made this all up as a way of setting public opinion against the strikes.
Inventing stories and spreading lies has always formed part of the arsenal governments of capitalism have used to try to discredit and defeat strikes. In employing such techniques the PS/PC government in France has shown once again that it is running capitalism in the only way it can be — against the interests of the wage and salary-earning majority.
Adam Buick (Luxemburg)