Film Review: ‘Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro’

London Labour Film Festival Gala – ‘Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro’ September 2012

The TUC-sponsored London Labour Film Festival gala-film was the French filmLes neiges du Kilimandjaro (2011). The film is directed by Robert Guediguian, and stars Jean-Pierre Darroussin as Michel, a CGT trade union official in the Marseilles shipyard.

The film opens in the shipyard, and the struggle between capital and labour sees the union ‘choosing’ by lot those who will be made redundant. Later Christophe, one of those made redundant, insinuates to Michel there have been many union compromises with management and ‘back handers’. For decades the CGT was allied with the Communist Party, and the ossified ‘Stalinist’ reformism of both undermined the events of 1968. The CGT was more recently involved in strike action in 2005 over the privatisation of the Marseilles maritime ferry service.

Michel mentions the 1972 “Common Programme” which was optimistically seen as the ‘union of the left’, forming the basis for the Mitterrand Presidential victory in 1981, and reforms to capitalism such as Keynesian economic measures. Michel has achieved a ‘good’ standard of living due to the benefits of ‘reformism’. He speaks highly to Christophe of the fruits of ‘reformism’, and in one scene Michel and his wife discuss that they are now “petty bourgeois”. During capitalism’s periodic crises, the workers’ wages decrease so that Christophe, the young worker who is made redundant with no severance payments, commits a robbery for purely economic need; the proceeds are used to buy food, pay the rent, and look after his younger brothers.

Michel’s hero is the pre-WWI reformist social democrat politician Jean Jaurès whose picture is on his work locker and he refers to him several times in the film. Jaurès advocated ‘popular front’ alliances with the progressive middle class. When WWI threatened in 1914 he tried to implement the Second International anti-war policy but was assassinated. Mitterrand placed a red rose on Jaurès’ tomb in 1981.

Jaurès’s reformism was opposed by Jules Guesde’s ‘Marxist’ party whose manifesto had been drawn up by Marx and Engels. In 1905 Guesde’s party and Jaurès’s party united under pressure from the Second International and Guesde soon got bogged down in reformism. In 1914 he joined the French government of “National Unity” although in 1907 he had declared war was the “result of the capitalist regime”. Had he not been assassinated no doubt Jaurès would have too.

Michel is imbued with an ‘Idealist, reformist, social democratic’ philosophy and the sense of ‘justice’ shared by Jaurès. Marxists see ‘justice’ as a concept originating in class society but Jaurès believed that the Idea of ‘justice’ causes the movement of history. Paul Lafargue critiqued Jaurès and ‘justice’ in his 1895 lecture Idealism and Materialism in the Conception of History: “Man never would have emerged from the primitive communist environment in which the idea of Justice does not exist”. Michel believes his conduct is guided by ‘justice’ but Lafargue sees that “the idea of Justice will vanish like a bad dream when common property shall have taken the place of private property”.

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