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The Demise of the International Proletariat of France

by | April 2, 2019

We had nearly the same number of immigrants twenty years ago. But they had another name then: they were called migrant workers or just plain workers. Today’s immigrant is first a worker who has lost his second name, who has lost the political form of his identity and of his otherness, the form of a political subjectification of the count of the uncounted. All he now has left is a sociological identity, which then topples over into the anthropological nakedness of a different race and skin …
Jacques Rancière

The Talbot situation makes clear why Mitterrand came to power: in order to transform the purely inhuman necessities of capital into an submissive and hypocritical collective consciousness …
Alain Badiou

The OS in the 1960s and 1970s

‘I think that Kamel, too, is the working class’. 

Robert Linhart was a Maoist établi – a militant sent into a working-class job for the specific purpose of organising workers. When Éditions de Minuit published Linhart’s account of his experiences in 1978, no one seemed to disagree with the book’s last sentence, identifying French Arabs as part of the working class. Indeed, at that time, ten years after May 1968 and what some, including Alain Badiou, called the ‘red years’, it wouldn’t have occurred to many to think of the OS – ouvriers spécialisés, a term for (unskilled) workers assigned to special-purpose machinery – of the 1960s and 1970s as exclusively ‘immigrants’ or as ‘Muslims’. Thinking that way was not a widespread or mass phenomenon.

Linhart’s L’Établi thus corresponds to what the historian Xavier Vigna called ‘working-class insubordination’. While the OS without doubt experienced post-colonial racism from foremen, bosses and employers, the public and the political Left considered these workers from the former French colonies as workers. Of course there was a flourishing of legitimising struggles, reflected in slogans such as ‘French workers, immigrant workers: same boss, same fight’ or ‘Equal pay for equal work’. This, together with Linhart’s account and those of other établis in the post-’68 period, bears witness to the fact that the most unrewarding work was entrusted to immigrant workers.

Thus in the 1960s and 1970s, leftism – and particularly its Maoist fringe – contributed to redefining the working class, emphasising its multinational and/or multicultural character, but without that leading to a narrow or exclusive focus on this aspect of proletarian condition. In this period, many young intellectuals, some of them brilliant students at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) on the Rue d’Ulm, went to work in the factories, following the call of the UJC-ml, a Maoist youth organisation which was well implanted at the ENS. This post-’68 political mood is evident, for example, in Claire Etcherelli’s book Elise ou la vraie vie (Elise, or Real Life), a militant account of an Algerian worker who was probably murdered by the Gaullist police. This element of the student youth who were a part of that period’s movement who went into the factories to connect with the masses, is also invoked in a recent issue of Les Temps modernes.

So in the post-’68 period, the proletariat of the Popular Front era, as portrayed in Jean Renoir’s film La vie est à nous (Life Belongs to Us), was succeeded by what another small Maoist organisation – the UCFml (L’Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste) – called the ‘International Proletariat of France’. Within this international proletariat, and especially in the old industrial regions like the north, the east, the Paris region or the Rhône (Lyon), it was immigrants who constituted the biggest battalions of the OS. The OS’s piecework required little training to perform, but was as exhausting as the Tramp’s work in Chaplin’s film Modern Times, given the increased production rhythms of the 1970s. Most of the OS were of foreign origin, with Algerians and Moroccans so visibly at the forefront in the auto industry as to represent, as Laure Pitti has put it, the face of the foreign OS. It is perhaps counterintutive to some that, as Pitti further indicates, they also took part in the great strikes of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the Renault factories. After all, in the factories the Gauche prolétarienne (GP), another post-’68 Maoist organisation, was linked to the Arab workers’ group the MTA (Mouvement des travailleurs Arabes). And as Roger Silvain, secretary of CGT Renault in those years, tells us, the role of the immigrant workers in the social struggles at the auto factories had an impact on ‘the workers as a whole’. There was, Pitti continues, ‘an emergence of the immigrant worker as a militant figure in the post-1968 period’: as, for example, with the OS strike at the Billancourt presses in 1971.

But that was a long time ago. Before the eclipse of Maoism. Before the disastrous Chinese Cultural Revolutionary project and the frightful Khmer Rouge experience in Cambodia called the Maoist position into question. And before the crisis of Marxism, and the wider crisis of revolutionary ideas especially, following the valiant sequence of events around Solidarnosc in Poland.

In early 2016 – that is to say almost fifty years after May ’68, the subjective political legacy of the post-’68 years seems to have disappeared. Almost forty years after the end of the red decade which, to echo Sartre perched outside of the Renault-Billancourt factory in 1970, existed through intellectuals’ and real workers’ joint experiences and militant trajectories, the international proletariat of France is indisputably socially present, but politically absent. It has been outlawed from the country and rendered invisible.

Working-class neighbourhoods in Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne, for example, are frequently presented not as places where a fraction of France’s working and proletarian people live, but as outlaw areas, of which the Académie française member and academic Alain Finkielkraut has declared himself afraid, as has the whole national-republican and secular milieu. As Jacques Rancière has long pointed out, this also includes the white and self-proclaimed feminist parliamentary Left. Indeed, this is precisely the same Left that is, in truth, responsible for this racial proscription that finds such a consensus with the state, a state whose obedient and vicious hacks (though they are not aggressive toward their own kind) speak of ‘lost territories of the Republic’.

How did we get here? What happened between the red years and now, when the Republic and its media spend their time talking of the danger represented by working-class neighbourhoods, portrayed as populated by barbaric anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Muslims with a terrorist or jihadist calling? It was the parliamentary Left that initiated this period, led by the Socialist Party under Mitterrand. Since then, the working and proletarian people in these poor neighbourhoods have become, alternatively, ‘the immigrant’, ‘the beur’ (a person born in France of North African parents), ‘the primitive’, and sometimes even all three at once.

Mitterrand’s Left in Power: or, Illusion as Lyric Farce

The Left’s victory in the presidential election in May 1981 is one of the many and varied effects of May ’68 and the years that followed in the parliamentary field. This victory was not in fact possible until, in addition to the reflux of left-wing militancy after 1977, the politically weakened Parti communiste français (PCF) gave way to the other great organisation of l’Union de la gauche (the union of the Left), formed in 1972, the Parti socialiste (PS). This latter, re-founded at Epinay sur Seine in 1971, was then headed by an old opportunist, who had become famous during the ‘great days’ of French colonialism, after first having been associated with Vichy, before joining the Resistance: François Mitterrand. It is, to say the least, problematic that such a scoundrel, who, as Minister of Justice during the Algerian War, had signed the execution orders for dozens of Algerian patriots, including Fernand Iveton, supposedly represented the Left. This would also, moreover, come to be of consequence for the future events that concern us.

To be accurate, the first xenophobic and Islamophobic sallies on the Left in the post-’68 period were the work of the PCF itself. In L’islam imaginare: La construction médiatique de l’islamophobie en France 1975–2005 (Imaginary Islam: the media construction of Islamophobia in France 1975–2005), Thomas Deltombe recalls the opposition of these ‘communists’ to the building of a mosque in Rennes. This in 1981, when the city’s PS mayor, Edmond Hervé, was in favour of the construction in the name of a secularism – laïcité – not yet confused, as it would come to be, with unvarnished Islamophobia. In that period, the PCF, headed by Georges Marchais, took a national and chauvinist turn. Its posters, for example, proclaimed the need to ‘produce French’, and it took a reactionary line on immigrant quotas or other ‘tolerance thresholds’ in working-class neighbourhoods. In 1980, the PCF even sent bulldozers against hostels for workers of African origin, in Vitry sur Seine in the Val-de-Marne. Such events would result in the departure from the PCF of intellectuals like the philosopher Etienne Balibar.

When the Parti socialiste came to power thirteen years after May ’68, it could thus that it could pass as to the left of the PCF, including among the immigrant OS, or in any case as free of the racism and chauvinism which permeated the Communist party, whose General Secretary did not hesitate to link the question of unemployment with that of immigration, just as did the Right, and a far Right which was at that time limited to mere groupuscules.

The OS Strikes in the Car Factories in the Paris Region: A Political Event

As early as 1982, however, the OS would be confronted by the violence of the PS government. When the turn to neoliberal austerity came – and as Ludivine Bantigny shows in her book La France à l’heure du monde (France in the era of the world), it had already begun in the autumn of 1981, and not, as is often said, as late as 1983 – workers’ strikes broke out in the car industry and in the factories of the Paris region: at Talbot and Citroën in Aulnay, and later in Poissy, but also at the then-nationalised Renault plant in Flins. These strikes, coming after years without clashes, were, to quote the historians Hatzfeld and Loubet, a ‘considerable event’.

Additionally, at that time the governing PS – elected on a program which promised, mimicking Rimbaud, nothing less than ‘a change of life’ including by breaking ‘from capitalism’ – revealed why it had in fact come to office. The situation of the factories of Citroën and Talbot (both subservient to Peugeot) was unique, even compared, for example, to that of the factories of Renault, a nationalised public company since Liberation. Indeed, there was a very particular atmosphere in the former two, as described in an article by the historian Vincent Gay: these were ‘factories of fear’, featuring ‘atypical features’ characterised by two striking, complementary aspects. The factories ‘approach[ed] an ideal-type of the employment of migrant labor in a Fordist enterprise’, while at the same time, unlike in the rest of the automotive industry, there ruled a rightist, ‘independent trade unionism’ or ‘house union’ represented by the CFT (Confédération Française du Travail) and the CSL (Confédération des Syndicats Libres). The former was, in the late 1950s, Gay makes clear, a tool for eliminating the CGT, a union closely linked to the PCF, at Simca (acquired by Peugeot in 1978).

As such, the Peugeot factories were like remnants of the old employers’ practices from before May ’68, when what reigned was a ‘coercive paternalism’ without any form of internal democracy. The CGT could only build clandestinely, and a worker’s ‘quiet life’ necessitated paying dues to the CSL – Thomas Deltombe recalls they were drawn directly from his salary! Ultimately, as Gay writes, these factories’ particular social systems could not function ‘as well without the use of immigrant labor’; that is, without the OS. The OS were known, in these factories as in many others, to be mainly foreign workers, many of them Arabs, assigned to the most unpleasant, hardest and worst-paid tasks, unlike the skilled workers. The hierarchical differentiation of workers in these factories therefore coupled with an ‘ethnicised allocation’ wherein, we might say, the proletariat of the working class of the factories of Citroën and Talbot was composed of workers from formerly French-colonised North Africa, above all Moroccans.

Though the factories saw no serious protest among workers until the late 1970s, the automotive sector experienced an important crisis at the end of those years. Furthermore, the Left’s rise to power with the PS/PCF government gave hope to factory employees who went on strike at Aulnay-Citroën on the evening of 22 April 1982, then at Poissy (Talbot) in June 1982. These strikes were unexpected. In part, this was because as Xavier Vigna makes clear, they were a continuation of – if also an end to – what he calls ‘labour insubordination’. However, they had important particularities. They were not quite the kind of strike of recent history. Indeed, beyond the unions’ demands on issues of salaries, career development, trade-union freedom or other issues specific to immigrant workers, the question of the workers’ dignity appears omnipresent in this strike movement, dubbed ‘the spring of the immigrant OS’. We find this, for example, in the Manifesto of the Citroën-Aulnay OS, where a rejection of ‘racial insults’ is stressed, as is the demand for equal rights (including to vote) with ‘all other workers of this country’ and ‘respect for human dignity’ were particularly at issue.

This last point is crucial: it overlays the class-struggle element of these events with a ‘racial’ dimension, in the sense that the OS specifically refused to be racialised in the factories. Moreover, the opposition between the shopfloor – the OS – and the foremen – the CSL union – overlapped with this racial opposition. Without doubt, this was related to an equally striking fact of these years, namely the lasting, and alas still-ongoing, electoral growth of the Front National from spring 1983. This surging Le Pen-ism rose against the backdrop of the OS’s supposed (Muslim) ‘fundamentalism’. If there were indeed demands related to religious practice (over prayer, Ramadan fasting), such claims had existed for years (as early as 1933, according to Vincent Gay), and had never been a problem for anyone until the beginning of the 1980s.

Nonetheless, in 1982, after five weeks of strikes involving other factories in the Paris region, the workers won a victory partly expressed by the appointment of a mediator, Jean-Jacques Dupeyroux, who criticised the Citroën system discussed above. The victory led to a resumption of work but also, and above all, to a new strike – in June – at the Talbot factory in Poissy.

Racist and Anti-Worker Hate Speech and Violence by Foremen and the PS/PCF Government, and its Effects

The Talbot strike in Poissy would last for two years, until the start of 1984, and is remembered above all for the violence against the OS from foremen euphemistically called ‘non-strikers’ by the media. In the name of ‘freedom to work’, they attacked the striking OS with truncheons and by throwing metal coins and bolts. Blood was shed. Amidst this frenzy, Sylvain Lazarus writes in Le Perroquet, the foremen shouted ‘the bougnoules [a racist term] in the oven!’ and ‘Arabs in the Seine!’. Vincent Gay adds that among this grim list of anti-strike slogans was ‘Negroes in the Seine!’.

The PS/PCF government laid off workers year after year, by accepting the dismissals decided under Peugeot’s so-called ‘social plan’, which came after events of 1983, when the company demanded that strikers evacuate the factory. More seriously, it reduced the striking workers to a narrow identification as ‘Muslims’ and ‘foreigners’, even though they stood for advances for all, including through the creation of a real CGT section in the factory.

It was in January 1983 that the acridly racist media-governmental discourse against the OS ramped up, and then went wild. It was vivid in the statements of several of Mitterrand’s ministers, all the more so coming from a ‘left-wing’ government. Thus, on 3 January 1983, L’Expansionpublished an article titled: ‘The car sector taken hostage by its immigrants. Aulnay, Poissy, Flins: how the CGT recuperated the revolt of the Muslims’. On 26 January, prime minister Pierre Mauroy – who still today passes for a progressive leader – declared that ‘the main difficulties which remain are posed by immigrant workers … agitated by religious and political groups determined by criteria that have little to do with French social realities’. The next day, his Minister of Internal Affairs, Gaston Defferre, spoke of ‘fundamentalists, Shi’ites’ on television. Like some lumpen barfly he thus confused the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism (to which the car workers belonged, where they were indeed Muslims) and Shi’ism (dominant in Iran, where the Islamic Revolution had recently triumphed in 1979).

However, as Vincent Gay points out in ‘Holy strikes or Workers’ strikes?’, it was Minister of Labour Jean Auroux who was most virulent, although he would later admit his statements were unfounded. At the time, on 10 February 1983, he said that there was

obviously a religious and fundamentalist element in the conflicts which we have encountered, which gives them a form which is not exclusively trade-unionist … I oppose the institutionalisation of whatever religion within the workplace … Immigrants are France’s guests and as such they have a double duty: play the game of the company and that of the nation.

As if this wasn’t clear enough, he added elsewhere on the same day:

When workers take an oath on the Koran in a trade-union movement, there is something going on beyond trade unionism … A certain number of people are interested in the political or social destabilisation of our country because we represent too much in terms of freedom and pluralism …

As regards the PS policy in the wake of such speeches, it has been pointed out that in the dismissal plans, decided by Peugeot and endorsed by the Mauroy government, a sort of ‘national preference’ such as was advocated by the FN (‘the French first’), was quite clearly in effect. Indeed, those who were laid off were mostly immigrant OS or French workers of foreign origin. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National appeared as an electoral force in the aftermath of these strikes in which, to quote Hatzfeld and Loubet, a strong connection was established between the worker and immigration. If the FN is an heir to the Vichy collaboration, it was also, especially in the Mitterrandian 1980s, a regroupment of nostalgists for the French colonial empire and, in particular, French Algeria. Indeed, a number of former members of the Organisation de l’armée secrete (OAS), a far-right paramilitary group supported by French army officers in Algeria, featured in the FN’s structures. Le Pen himself was a torturer, under the orders of Lacoste, Mollet and Mitterrand, during the war in Algeria.

As such, the continuing inscription of the extreme Right in the French parliamentary scene cannot be uncoupled from the policies of the Left in power. At the time of the OS automobile strikes, this government denied workers their relationship with the country where they lived and worked to create an ‘immigration problem’, suggesting that these workers – judged ‘primitive’ due to their status as OS – go back to their country of origin, in the name of a policy of ‘return’. This policy was initiated by Bonnet and Stoléru under Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency, but it was resumed and amplified by the Mauroy government. And it was fully endorsed by the PCF ministers. Thus, the Communist Minister for Employment Jack Ralite told the National Assembly that the Talbot immigrants will be ‘helped to return to their countries, if they express the wish to do so’. In early 1984, a magazine Les Nouvellesfeatured pictures of the clashes, including an image of an Arab worker’s bloodied face – under the headline ‘Talbot: take your twenty bricks and get out of there?’ (One ‘brick’ is French slang for 10,000 francs.)

The supposedly archaic, worn-out OS had to disappear in favor of high-level, adaptable ‘skilled’ labour, suiting liberal modernity with a PS sauce. The ‘left’ unions, too,had a lamentable record. The CFDT in the 1980s traded their leftism of the era for an allegiance with the liberal PS, after workers at the company LIP seized control of the factory and ran the company as a workers’ cooperative.The CGT was still subservient to a PCF that held ministries in the Mauroy government. In February 1983, the CFDT declared, ‘We are all Shi’ite fundamentalists’ – despite having requested CRS riot cops’ intervention only the previous month.The CGT, meanwhile, would not decide between defending the OS against the racialisation to which they were subjected, and a discourse of saving ‘the brand’ at Peugeot. At the end of the strikers’ factory occupation, Nora Tréhel, CGT leader and wife of the PCF mayor of Poissy, asked, ‘Do you want the television to say that the immigrants shut down the French factories?’

Against the background of economic crisis, the PS – loyal to what it believes to be reality, in a dynamic one sees again more recently with the security policy of Hollande and Valls – therefore hollowed out the reality of the figure of the Arab OS, and presented them instead as ‘immigrant’ and foreigner in a country which they helped to build, through their participation in the country’s economic activity, and by involvement in the workers’ struggles in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.

The word ‘immigrant’ became a beacon for parliamentarism in those years. It means a ‘problem’; Mitterrand adopted the PCF phrase ‘threshold of tolerance’ while pushing for the creation of an PS front organisation : SOS Racisme. This organisation was created top to bottom by Mitterrand and his people, and, notably, was given the imprimatur of Marek Halter and Bernard-Henry Levy. It was led by people who are now PS big cheeses, often those with a republican-securitarian line, such as Julien Dray or Malek Boutih. Boutih, for example, posed shirtless wrapped in a tricolore scarf, and has not hesitated to insult the low-income suburbs and their populations with comments which could come out of the mouths of the more moderate members of the FN .

The creation of SOS Racisme came in the mid-1980s, in response to the Arab OS being made a general scapegoat. It took place at the same time as the recuperation of the Marche pour l’Egalité in 1983, followed by a second march the following year called Convergence 84, and the dissemination of the word ‘beur’ (and its female variant, ‘beurette’). Instead of the working-class figure attacked and proscribed by a PS government determined to set France on the tracks of liberal modernisation and European integration, these words substituted an inauthentic figure, to use Sartre’s terms. This was a figure absolutely detached from the working parents of these so-called beurs and beurettes. After working thirty or forty years as OS in the factory, these people were considered trash by the PS, a party which replaced Mauroy with the dashing and modern Fabius, while promoting the swindling crook Bernard Tapie, who later became a minister under Mitterrand. This foreshadowed the moment today when Emmanuel Macron shouts at the youth: ‘Become a millionaire!’

Therefore, only beurs and beurettes – also designated ‘mates’ by SOS Racisme, then led by the vivacious Harlem Désir (its main slogan is ‘Hands Off My Mate’) – constitute an acceptable figure of the other or the foreigner in the eyes of the parliamentary consensus initiated by the economic-modernising PS. This figure is the only one that integration – also a key word of this era – tolerates. France in a global era, and one of crisis a few years after the Iranian Revolution that so troubled it, would only accept Arabs ‘integrated’ into the world such as it is, a world that is hostile to their social milieu and – most importantly, of course – their Islamic culture.

The Strikes at Talbot and Citroën: An Essential Landmark in Media-Parliamentary Islamophobia

In 1986, a few years after the terrible events at Talbot, an uninteresting French pop song (in which one can, however, hear an orientalising melody) met with a certain success. ‘Djemila des lilas’ by Jean-Luc Lahaye is striking in that it sums up the swing, under the ‘socialist’ government, toward Islamophobia in its most consensual, and, all things considered, violent form. In the music video ‘Djemila’ repeatedly shows her breasts, as a side-effect of the republican unveiling of the beurette. The Qu’ran is surreptitiously attacked in the song (though nobody finds fault with the Bible or the Torah) since Djemila will ‘now love tolerantly, less angry, less bitter’. Finally – perhaps an unconscious nod to the former interior minister Defferre, who passed away in the year the song was released – the chorus adopts the old Islamophobic PS refrain from 1983, with Djemila saying that ‘far from Khomeini [of course in the song she was Algerian rather than Iranian, but never mind] she mimics Adjani’.

This song is the link between the Talbot episode and the ultra-secular-republican fury expressed in 1989 over the wearing of the veil in school. In Lahaye’s song it is Arab men (the brothers or fathers to be precise) who cause trouble, but the West and rock music are there to save the beurettes, the ‘frail gazelles’ that the archaic Orient wants to lock up. The video ends with images of Algeria. It provides a parallel to leave us wondering.

Sometimes the silliest songs which say a lot about a piece of history or politics. The republican, postcolonial Islamophobia was born as a mass, uninhibited opinion at the moment of the strikes in the car industry, as the denigration of the OS workers’ lives broken by the factory and the employers’ contempt for them. The racist tone won out over everything. The defeat was a multiple one. A working-class figure came to an end. All this was inscribed in the Mitterrandian modernisation of French capitalism, which was also the beginning of the ‘economic updating’ of the Left.

The Talbot episode was a turning point that set out the trap in which we are today – still, and even more! – stuck. France has abandoned its workers and marginalised their neighbourhoods as ‘territories lost to the Republic’. The party closest to the ‘house unionism’ of the CSL today approaches the elections with close to thirty per cent of the votes… We should not forget that this dramatic political change is the work of the Left, and particularly the Socialist Party.

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Yvan Najiels was born in 1973 in Colombes, France. He has been a secondary teacher of French since 2000, having worked for sixteen years in Seine-Saint-Denis (93). He was a member from 1990 to 2001 of the Organisation politique group. He has a blog on the Mediapart website an also edits the Mille Communismes (A Thousand Communisms) blog.