Letter From Europe: SOS Longwy
Some miles before Longwy there comes into view the reddish cloud which permanently hangs over it and over nearby Rodange in Luxemburg. As you get nearer you can see on the top of the slag heap which dominates the centre of the town a sign flashing “SOS EMPLOI”. Longwy, in other words, is a steel town, and a steel town threatened with massive redundancies.
The world steel industry has been in crisis since 1974—productive capacity exceeds what can be sold profitably—and this has had serious repercussions in the old steel-making areas of Europe, such as Lorraine. The Lorraine steel industry began to develop a hundred or so years ago when a method of using the iron ore found in abundance in the area was discovered. Now that there are more modern methods of production and cheaper sources of iron ore, Lorraine is inevitably suffering the measures to reduce capacity which, within the framework of capitalism, is the only way of “solving” the current crisis. That such drastic measures were going to be necessary was evident as far back as 1976 when, instead of expanding again after a year or so of recession as on previous occasions, steel sales and production continued to stagnate.
The French government waited until the general elections of March 1978 were over (and won) before considering what to do. By then the privately-owned French steel firms were virtually bankrupt. Towards the end of last year the government announced that it was going to take over the running of these firms, appointing its own nominees to preside over the “restructuring” of the industry—the suppression of “excess” capacity—and jobs.
Over Lorraine, the government had a difficult decision to make: where to build a new modern steel works, in Longwy or in Neuves-Maisons, 100 or so kilometres further south near Nancy? In the end they chose Neuves-Maisons. As soon as the announcement was made there was consternation and anger in Longwy since the whole population realised that, on top of the already announced loss of jobs, this meant mass unemployment and a slow decline for their town. Thousands of school-children were assembled in the town centre to release balloons bearing the message “Longwy vivra” (Longwy will live). International passenger trains were stopped; wagons carrying Swedish iron ore were emptied on to the tracks; the frontiers with Belgium and Luxemburg were blocked; and lorries carrying steel products from Holland and, in particular, Germany were stopped and unloaded onto the motorway.
CRS move in
At the end of January two top managers of the steel firm Usinor were held hostage in their offices in Longwy. This led to the first violent clash with the CRS (the para-military riot police with a justified reputation for brutality) when they intervened to free the managers. The local police station was attacked with stones and other missiles. But the attack of 30 January was mild compared with what was to happen on the night of 23/24 February. Members of the CFDT trade union had been occupying a television relay station on a nearby hill and interrupting programmes to screen written messages opposing the planned redundancies. In a surprise attack in the middle of the night the CRS recaptured the station. News of this was announced to the population by the sounding of factory sirens and in no time a crowd of several hundreds had gathered in the centre of town in an angry mood. A bulldozer was commandeered and used against the gates of the police station. The crowd only dispersed after the intervention of the local Communist Party MP, Antoine Porcu, who had arranged a tacit truce: retreat by the crowd and their bulldozer in return for the withdrawal of the CRS (but not the local police) to outside the town limits. Later on in the morning the leaders of the Communist Party (PCF) dominated trade union, the CGT, organised the sacking of the local office of the steel employers’ federation; furniture was thrown out of the windows and files burned.
By now Longwy had acquired a national, and even an international, reputation of being in a fighting mood. The authorities decided that discretion was the better part of valour and kept the CRS out of Longwy, well aware that their very presence there would provoke fresh violence.
But the violence was not yet over. The two trade unions, the CFDT and the CGT had both established radio stations the latter in Longwy’s town hall with the evident blessing and support of the PCF mayor. Since the state in France has a monopoly of broadcasting these stations were technically illegal “pirate” stations and on 17 May jamming began of the CGT station. Radio Coeur d’Acier (Radio Heart of Steel). The result was the worst violence to date. The population was again called out by factory sirens and in the course of five hours fighting during the night 25 people, from the CRS as well as the crowd, were injured and 5 arrests made. Unusually, these 5 were not held in custody and, when they came up for trial, the charges against them were dismissed. The jamming of Radio Coeur d’Acier also stopped.
Clearly, the population of Longwy has shown a remarkable degree of solidarity and determination and this has enabled them to restrict the authority of the central State which has seen itself obliged to keep its riot police away and to allow the trade union radios to continue broadcasting illegally. But, and this is why the central State can afford to sit back and wait, the working class in Longwy are fighting a battle they cannot win. For in trying to keep open an unprofitable and outdated steel works they are not simply fighting against a government decision but against the economic laws of capitalism. If central governments not only in France but in Britain, Germany, Belgium and other countries too have had to bow to the logic of capitalism and cut back their steel industries, then the action of a small town, however determined, is not going to be able to override the iron law of “no profit, no production”.
The sad fact is that the loss of the steel jobs in Longwy is inevitable and the most that the workers affected can hope for is a short postponement of their sackings and bigger redundancy payments. Indeed, this is what their solidarity and determination may bring them in the end and. if it does, it will not have been entirely in vain. But, when analysed unemotionally, it’s precious little. Like its neighbouring town of Athus in Belgium (which also had its clashes with the police when its steelworks was closed—but who remembers this now, except a few old men wondering what’s going to happen when their three-year redundancy benefits come to an end?). Longwy is doomed to decline even if its working class population had chosen to go down fighting.
There are those who don’t share this analysis but who see the clashes in Longwy as “the first flames of a renaissant proletarian flare-up” (Revolution Internationale, April 1979) and who talk of “the flare-up of proletarian violence that has restarted from Longwy” (Jeune Taupe, March-April 1979). According to these starry-eyed idealisers of violence, the events are the beginning of a revival of the working class’ “lost” revolutionary consciousness. Let’s scotch this myth before it goes any further. First, willingness to fight the police is no gauge of revolutionary consciousness (otherwise Manchester United supporters would have to be regarded as hardened revolutionaries). What allows someone to be described as a revolutionary is the aim he seeks—a complete transformation of society. In Longwy, despite the violence, the struggle is purely defensive: to save jobs (and on an issue where, unlike defensive struggles over wages and working conditions, failure is inevitable). Even the fights with the police have been defensive in the sense of being responses to actions started by the police. As for the political consciousness of those involved, unfortunately it is at the same level as in similar industrial towns in other parts of France: mostly support for the so-called Communist Party. Longwy has a PCF member of parliament and a PCF mayor.
The French CP, although still hypocritically paying lip-service to Marx’s ideas, has gone completely nationalist and analyses the steel crisis in France as an attempt by the German steel barons to eliminate a competitor. The German steel barons are supposed to control the Common Market Commission in Brussels and to have instructed Viscount Davignon, the Belgian Commissioner responsible for industrial affairs, to draw up a plan involving the dismantling of the French steel industry. This analysis would be laughable did it not provide the basis for a deliberate campaign by the PCF to stir up anti- German feelings. The PCF mayor of Longlaville, a small commune between Longwy and the Luxemburg border, has put up the following slogan on his town hall: “1870 – 1914 – 1939. La Lorraine ne sera pas vendue aux trusts allemands” (1870 – 1914 – 1939. Lorraine will not be sold to the German trusts). The present writer has seen this with his own eyes and is therefore prepared to believe reports of similar sentiments being expressed by other PCF members, the worst of which is the following from a certain J Gillet, a local CGT trade union official:
“What’s going to come about is the domination of Europe and France by the German capitalists. What the Germans were unable to obtain in 1914 and 1939, they are conquering today. Our action can be likened to that of the Resistance. It is a struggle for national independence” (quoted in L’Anarcho-Syndicaliste. April-May 1979).
This is not to say that the working class of Longwy are rabid German-haters. Far from it. They are ordinary workers worried about their future who, besides, being for the most part immigrants or children of immigrants from Poland and Italy, have no reason to see themselves as French chauvinists. This is why it is quite disgusting that the PCF should be exploiting the very real fears of the ordinary workers of Longwy in this way. Without exaggeration, their campaign can be said to be on a par with that of the pre-war German Nazis who blamed, again falsely, the problems of unemployed German workers on the Jews. To give credit where it is due, the smaller CFDT trade union has tried to counter this chauvinistic anti-German campaign of the PCF.
Those who see the combative attitude of the workers of Longwy as the beginning of a revival of a revolutionary, socialist consciousness among the working class are deluding themselves. We only wish that it was, but sober reality forces us to recognise that it isn’t. Yet it is an indication of the solidarity and determination the working class are capable of, a display which enables us to confidently conclude that when the workers really do want and understand socialism nothing is going to stop them getting it.