Thursday, April 9, 2009


L'Action directe: those of a certain age will remember the extremist group of the 1980s. It seems that there is a permanent temptation to resort to "direct action," though the sense in which the recourse to illegality and violence is more "direct" than other forms of political action is hardly perspicuous and needs to be unpacked. In recent times, surely, direct action has rarely yielded the desired result, so its "directness" should not be confused with efficacy. Direct action does generally substitute deeds (of a certain kind) for words, and that is no doubt one of its attractions to practitioners. It also involves an element of risk, which is perhaps taken as a sign of authentic commitment and readiness to sacrifice rather than serve oneself (as politicians who favor "indirect" action are invariably suspected of doing).

Back when he was a candidate, Sarkozy professed to "understand" the recourse to "direct action" by certain groups, such as fishermen, whom he described as "threatened with economic death." The defense was thus one of legitimate self-defense: who cannot countenance violence in such circumstances? Sarkozy implicitly asked. Now that he is president, he prefers to emphasize the existence of a "society of laws" and to call for the "most extreme severity" in dealing with demonstrators who break those laws. Olivier Besancenot has taken the opposite line: "Il est légitime et cohérent que cela dérape," he said, speaking of the destruction that took place in Strasbourg. Never mind that many of the demonstrators did not endorse the violence, or that much of the damage was confined to one of the poorer quarters of the city. And Besancenot's sentiments have been echoed, in less forthright terms, on both the left (Royal) and right (Villepin)--for an analysis, see Koztoujours.

The "legitimate self-defense" justification is one that I am prepared to countenance, but only in the most extreme circumstances. Neither a NATO summit nor layoffs at Caterpillar qualify. "Que cela dérape" is perhaps more "normal" in France than it ought to be, but "legitimate?" I don't think so, and the political class ought to remember the Chinese proverb: "He who mounts the tiger will end up inside." (I am aware of the proverbial riposte to this ancient wisdom: "The monkey rules the mountain when there is no tiger." Alas, after the tigers have eaten all the monkeys and each other, it is the hyenas who rule the mountain.)


MYOS said...

I would not compare the situation at Caterpillar with that in Strasbourg. In Strasbourg, some vandals literally set a hotel on fire WITH PEOPLE IN IT and the firefighters took about 45mn to respond. As for the police, Claude Guéant said 'Heads of State ought to be their priority".
Thus, endangering people's lives and destroying buildings and possessions.
In the Caterpillar case, the manager was held for 24hours in his office, which I admit is no fun, but he was brought food, coffee, was at no risk, his life was not endangered, and no building or possessions were destroyed (and especially not torched).
So, while it may be wrong to keep Caterpillar managers, the action can't be considered of the same scale, type, or gravity, as what happened in Strasbourg.
About violence:

koz said...

Thank you Arthur for your reading.

It is right that Sarkozy did use a similar reasoning. However, I may point out that fishermen do die every year simply by doing their job, whereas they barely earn enough to live decently. They should not take violent actions and violence must be condemned in that case too, but they do not live the same at Caterpillar. However, a president or campaigning polictician should not have said what Sarkozy said : there is a difference between being comprehensive, as a citizen or as a Chief of State.

Myos, you have astonishing news. Concerning Caterpillar, you give the version of the CGT : "everyting was fine and, you know what, they even thanked us at the end". There is a "slightly different version in the Figaro :

You'll tell me that it's the Figaro. Ok. But your version is from the CGT.

And, by the way, no, there were nobody in the Ibis Hotel at Strasbourg. Do not hesitate to give a link to prove what you say.

Anonymous said...

To the poster above ("koz")
I confirm there were police officers inside the Ibis hotel. They're even asking internal affairs to handle the issue because they called for rescue. They may even have been targeted.
In my opinion, attempting to burn officers alive IS more serious than holding people hostage.
I'm not trying to say holding people hostage is good, okay?
But just because something is a crime and something else is a crime doesn't mean they're the same- one is wrong, one is evil, if you will.
Attempted murder is different from hostage-taking in the law, for good reason.

Thanks for bringing up this sentence by Besancenot. Believe it or not, it did not make waves in France. Last poll: only 7% disapprove of the hostage-taking. It must really be something cultural because many people I know find it perfectly acceptable, don't see what the problem is, or think it's wrong and should not be done but but , whatever. Some think ti's unfair because the managers aren't responsible, some express concern that the workers could get carried away but that's about it.
A good question: why do so many French people find this tactics acceptable?

Unknown said...

On the question of why so many French people find hostage-taking an acceptable strike tactic, I have a tentative thought: perhaps it has something to do with memories of the days when most firms were family-owned, when the owner was often the most important person in town, and when the family residence may even have been on the factory site. This "feudal" image of industry persists today, even after ownership and management have been separated in most places. So the manager is seen as "the oppressor" rather than as a (better-paid) employee facing constraints on what he or she does. I may be wrong, but I think this tolerance of "direct action" has deep historical roots.

Unknown said...

To Koz,
Yes, fishing is a dangerous occupation, but Sarkozy justified the fishermen's direct action by invoking "economic death," that is, the threat to their livelihood. In this I think there was a deliberate conflation of the physical risk with the economic risk. But many activities carry an economic risk, even though their physical risk is far less extreme than that of fishermen. "Economic death" is a fact of life: there will always be exit as well as entry in a competitive system. One may regret this; one may feel compassion for the victims. But it is quite another thing to say that "economic death" justifies violence as a "legitimate self-defense." The economically deceased survives to work another day, in another field. The proper political response is to create jobs and accompany the displaced in their adjustment. It's rhetorical sleight of hand to pretend that physical risk in the workplace justifies a more muscular reaction in the public square.

MYOS said...

Thanks Arthur and Koz.
I apologize if I seemed to advocate violence... and just so you know, Le Figaro is a much more reliable source than CGT as far as I'm concerned. I was just echoing what seems to be the consensus - and my sources were TF1 and F2, not leftist pamphlets. There IS a high tolerance for this type of action.
I happen to have been "held" and time expands while the space -YOUR space- constricts. You're dispossessed of what you never knew was part of yourself.
However I can also say that it is NOT the same as in Strasbourg. Your life is not in danger. Physical harm is not the point. It's a form of symbolic violence and while harsh it is profundly different from what people can experience when surrounded by a mob bent on destruction.
Based on the general reports, the employees are civil - not because they're nice, but because they want something. The assumption is that the person must be well-treated, will be well-treated.
Most of all... it works.
Mediapart has a report titled "Sequestrer son patron: c'est mal, mais ça marche".

In a nutshell, the way people understand it here: when companies "hold out" on what they should do and don't act ethically, they must be made to behave as they should including by unethical means.