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Ian H. Birchall

Trouble on the Metro

(April 1970)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April/May 1970, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The defence of the material and moral interests of the working class dees not stop at the gates of the factories where workers are exploited. It involves every aspect of exploitation, and the scandal of public transport – indispensable to this exploitation – is not the least of these. (Lutte Ouvrière, January 13.)

Paris today suffers from the transport problems common to all great cities – plus a few extra ones deriving from Government incompetence and inaction over the last 50 years. There have been no substantial changes in the Paris transport system since 1920, though the population of the suburbs has increased by well over 1,000,000. Less than three miles of track have been added to the Underground since 1945.

Recent attempts to improve the system have been halfhearted, apart from cases where the clientele is largely bourgeois, like the new Metro line to Orly Airport. Other pseudo-solutions are one-man-operated buses, and tube carriages specially designed for maximum crowding (the main feature of the design is the absence of straps to hang on to). On one suburban railway line the number of coaches in trains is actually cut during the rush-hour – as the coaches have been transferred to a new ‘modern’ line. The general inefficiency means that any minor mishap causes massive disruption and delay.

The authorities have, however, seen fit to increase prices – increases planned for June mean that tube fares will have more than doubled and bus fares more than quadrupled over the last three years.

The inadequacies of public transport mean that many people resort to using private cars. There are some 3,000,000 vehicles in the Paris region – and only 100,000 can circulate freely in Paris at any one time. The result is catastrophic congestion.

The authorities have only two answers. Firstly, repression. In the first 10 months of 1969 there were 4,500300 charges for parking offences. Secondly, the introduction of parking meters. This solves nothing, but it drives the poorest car-owners back onto the overcrowded public transport system – and raises revenue into the bargain.

Transport raises a whole number of other issues. For example, the use of private vehicles causes far greater pollution than an efficient public transport. Inefficient transport causes many workers to be late for work, and lose money.

It is in this context that the comrades around the French revolutionary paper Lutte Ouvrière launched a campaign on the issue of public transport in Paris. This campaign was run in conjunction with the PSU (left social-democrats), and culminated in a public meeting on February 20, attended by over 4,000 people, and addressed by transport workers as well as speakers from LO and the PSU.

The slogan of the campaign was ‘L’Etat nous route’ (a play on words best rendered as ‘The State is taking us for a ride’). The basic demands raised were:

  1. A single fare for all journeys by bus, tube and railway (so that workers should not be penalised for living at a distance from their work), with the perspective of abolition of payment;
  2. Immediate improvement of bus services, and work to begin on extending the railway network;
  3. More frequent bus services and more carriages on trains;
  4. Shorter working hours to compensate for time lost in travel.

The campaign allowed the possibility of a range of imaginative ventures in propaganda and direct action. Impromptu meetings were held in railway and tube stations during the rush-hour, and in some cases attracted crowds of over 100. At the Montparnasse tube station, a LO sympathiser got access to the public address system and spoke to passengers over the loudspeakers in denunciation of increased fares. At a number of stations groups of workers refused to pay and forced their way through the barriers, getting tacit support from ticket-collectors.

The police attempted to stamp on this direct action as brutally as possible, but while some arrests were made, they had relatively little success. This was partly due to the very fact of congestion which enabled militants to escape rapidly; but also to the general sympathy of the travelling public towards the leftists.

LO are now calling for a continuation of the campaign by raising demands for action by the trade unions and the creation of transport users’ committees.

The political importance of the campaign is considerable. Firstly, it has opened up a new area of political activity. Previously revolutionaries seemed to have only two alternatives: long-term systematic work in the factories, requiring enormous dedication, or adventurist confrontations on issues which won little sympathy outside the student milieu. The transport agitation revived a little of the energy and practical activity of May 1968.

Secondly, the campaign had an effect on the entire constellation of the French left. LO have now achieved some basis for joint action with the PSU, which has both reformist and revolutionary currents within it. This united action has not impeded LO from making a critical analysis of the PSU – or from attacking the PSU councillor Claude Bourdet who supported the introduction of parking meters.

While no formal agreements were made, a number of Maoist groups (Humanité Rouge, Gauche Proletarienne, etc.) also participated in agitation on the issue of public transport, in particular organising refusals to pay fares. A group of Paris transport workers produced and distributed a leaflet on the question. The CFDT was active in campaigning and leaf-letting, and about 80 of its militants were arrested in one day for leafletting. Even the Paris Federation of the Socialist Party organised a demonstration – bringing out their red flags for the first time in years.

The PCF and the CGT have taken an ambiguous position. They have been unable to ignore the agitation and forced to support it verbally, by calls for ‘mass action’. But though they have the only organisation capable at present of launching mass action, they have scrupulously refrained from doing so. Instead, they have devoted their energies to denouncing revolutionary militants for attacks on transport workers – thereby grossly exaggerating a few incidents where inspectors clashed with demonstrators – and ignoring the general sympathy of transport workers for the campaign.

In short, the agitation marks a modest but significant step forward for the revolutionary forces in France.

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Last updated: 28.2.2008