The Tradition-Keeper: Martine Aubry

This is my fourth post on the contenders for the socialist primary. I have also written about the other candidate in the October 16 run-off, François Hollande.

Martine Aubry, the press likes to tell us, is a French Angela Merkel. For the most part, this is a little more than a fairly shallow comment on their similarity in appearance. Other than their occasionally dour expressions, the French socialist and the German Christian Democrat do not share much in common. A far more apt comparison is between Aubry—a candidate in the run-off on Sunday, October 16 that will determine the Socialist Party’s 2012 presidential nominee—and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Both were raised socialist (or at least, in Brown’s case, with a strong social conscience), the way that some people are raised, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. Actually, they were raised Presbyterian and Catholic, respectively: Brown is the son of a Church of Scotland minister, while Aubry grew up in a milieu of Catholic trade unionists. Neither was particularly drawn to Marxism. For both, socialism is above all a moral doctrine, aimed at alleviating the suffering of the wretched of the earth.

Yet while their upbringing inculcated them with irrepressible socialist instincts, Aubry and Brown both came to political maturity in the late seventies and early eighties, when the old socialist dream was under assault on all fronts: the decadence of the Soviet Union, deindustrialization, the crisis of the postwar welfare state, and the resurgent free-market liberalism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Consequently, both found themselves in the difficult position of keeping the tradition alive at a time when its basic tenets had to be fundamentally rethought. In Brown’s case, the conclusions were dramatic: he joined Tony Blair in founding New Labor, which essentially severed the party from its socialist moorings. Aubry, significantly, has never signed on to so dramatic a makeover. Yet the left-wing governments in which she served in the eighties and nineties often grappled with the same issues that led Brown and Blair to steer Labor in a new direction. Aubry, like Brown (but not Blair), is an heir to the socialist tradition in a globalized, post-industrial age, when the meaning of socialism has become uncertain.

Growing up a Delors

Traditionalists are attached to sacred places, to what the French call lieux de memoires—“sites of memory,” places that tie you to the past. One way to understand Martine Aubry, perhaps, is by considering her own distinctive “sites of memory.” The first, no doubt, would be her family home—the Paris apartment where she grew up, in the eastern neighborhood of Bercy. Home life revolved around the politics of her father, Jacques Delors. Though he is now best remembered as François Mitterrand’s finance minister and as a president of the European Commission during a pivotal period of European construction, he began his career in left-wing Catholic politics. Delors belonged to the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (Christian Workers’ Youth, or JOC), which sought promote the working class’ spiritual and material wellbeing while teaching the church’s social doctrine. It also encouraged workers to join unions, as Delors himself did: while working at the Banque de France, he became active in the leading Christian union, the Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens (the French Federation of Christian Workers, or CFTC). When the union secularized itself in 1964, Delors became a leading figure in the new organization, now named the Confédération française démocratique du travail (the French Democratic Labor Federation, or CFDT).

Martine Delors (as she was then called) grew up in a home that was suffused with the political subculture of social Catholicism. She tells her biographer: “I was raised in the midst of permanent debate.” The family apartment was a constant political forum, where union activists and leaders like Edmond Maire, the CFDT’s leader, crossed paths with sympathetic businessmen such as Antoine Riboud or left-Catholic intellectuals like Paul Thibaud. She was raised on newspapers like Témoignage chrétien and journals such as Esprit, social Catholicism’s intellectual mouthpieces. The family was inspired by the teachings of the philosophers Emmanuel Mounier and particularly Paul Ricoeur (who also dropped by the apartment). Both embraced a form of Christian humanism, arguing that a just society is one that allows the complete realization of human abilities. Their aspiration was less to overthrow capitalism than to humanize the economic world, rendering it harmonious with basic human needs. This tradition also views democracy as socialism’s necessary political form. Socialism’s ultimate goal, according to the CFDT, should be autogestion: the principle of “self-management” applied to all realms of social and economic life. This conviction was the cornerstone of what became known as the “second left”—the pro-civil society, anti-statist trend within French socialism. Though it is closely associated with the socialist politician Michel Rocard, Aubry was raised on its teachings as well.

Despite her Catholic upbringing, Aubry describes herself as a non-believer. But she remains deeply attached to her father and his ideals. One of the more interesting dynamics within her cohort of socialist politicians is the competition over the right to be called Delors’ “spiritual heir.” Both Dominique Straus-Kahn and François Hollande, who were mentored by Delors, have laid claim to this title, particularly because of their staunchly pro-European views. Yet neither, needless to say, is as intimately acquainted with Delors’ distinctive political outlook as his daughter.

Super-Minister of Labor

The French Labor Ministry (the Hôtel du Châtelet)The second site that provides a key to understanding Aubry is closely connected to the first: the Hôtel du Châtelet, located at 127, rue de Grenelle, in Paris’ seventh arrondissement. Since the early twentieth century, this elegant building has hosted France’s labor ministry. No living French politician has spent as much time here as Martine Aubry.

In the current campaign, Aubry has made much of her government experience. She has served in three cabinets. Interestingly, she has never not been labor minister. She received her first ministerial portfolio under Prime Minister Edith Cresson (1991-1992), serving as “minister of labor, employment, and professional training.” She continued in this capacity under Pierre Béregovoy (1992-1992). During the Jospin government (1997-2002), she was given a “superminstry,” in which the labor portfolio was folded into a “ministry of employment and solidarity.” It was also placed second in protocolar order—i.e., immediately below the prime minister. Though Aubry is intimately familiar with inner workings of the French state, her knowledge comes largely from this single bureaucratic vantage point.

Unusually, she began her career at the labor ministry with something like an entry-level job. Like most prominent French politicians, Aubry attended the National Administration School (ENA), graduating in 1975 (the “Léon Blum” class). Around this time, Martine Delors married a wealthy businessman named Xavier Aubry, with whom she had a daughter before divorcing him. After François Mitterrand’s election in 1981, she received her first job at the Hôtel du Châtelet. During the brief period of great socialist expectations following Mitterrand’s victory, she wrote most of the Auroux laws (named after the socialist labor minister at the time), one of the few genuinely progressive achievements of the president’s first term. The Auroux laws sought to introduce the principle of workplace democracy into French economic life, notably by increasing the power of employee-elected “company committees” (comités d’entreprise) and other measures aimed at encouraging employee initiative and decision-making. I experienced the Auroux laws first-hand, when I sat on the comité d’entreprise of the school where I worked outside of Paris in the 1990s. By this point, comités d’entreprise were little more than glorified party planning committees. But they nonetheless forced management to be transparent about critical decisions and required the employees to be consulted on any non-disciplinary lay-offs. As a practical application of “self-management,” the Auroux laws embodied some of the major aspirations of Delors and the “second left.”

Aubry claims to have worked in nearly every office in the Hôtel du Châtelet. But her most important and controversial accomplishment as labor minister occurred during her stint in the Jospin government between 1997 and 2000. When the socialists won snap parliamentary elections in 1997, France had been suffering from chronic mass unemployment for over two decades. As a solution, the socialists proposed one of Mitterrand’s unachieved goals: limiting the work week to thirty-five hours. Reducing the length of the work week had long been one of the French labor movement’s primary goals. The Popular Front had cut the work week to forty hours, and Mitterrand had knocked off an additional hour. High levels of employment provided an additional rationale to shortening work time: if currently employees worked less, the reasoning went, employers would need to hire more workers, thus bringing down the unemployment rate. The fact that the conservative government of Edouard Balladur had already experimented with this idea (with the so-called Robien law) made it even more promising.

As labor minister, Martine Aubry became the public face of the “thirty-five hours law,” which also bore her name. Some of her collaborators find it ironic that Aubry, who is reputed for her relentless work habits, should be tied to a law intended to reduce the time French people work. Her staff at the labor ministry joked the thirty-five hours work week would apply to everyone—everyone, that is, except for them.

The “Aubry Laws” were highly complex pieces of legislation. They had two main goals: to make the thirty-five hour work week the norm for most French companies and to encourage employers to engage in collective bargaining over the implementation of this stipulation. A two-step process was created: companies were given financial incentives to negotiate collective bargaining agreements before state-decreed arrangements kicked in. The result was a thick swathe of new labor regulations and collective bargaining agreements.

Were the Aubry laws successful? According to the economist Philippe Ashkenazy, the laws reduced the work week for most of the private sector while creating between 300,000 and 350,000 new jobs—substantially less than the socialists hoped, but significant job creation all the same. The problem, however, was that the law did more to increase flexibility in employment practices than to reduce work time. Not all employees were affected equally, as Ashkenazy notes: “When workers and office employees, in particular, are confronted with flexible working hours, they tend to experience worsening working conditions. Conversely, the autonomy of managers and most technicians was preserved, and they reaped the benefit of vacation days known as supplementary RTT[reduction of work time], particularly valued by women managers.” As the French economy picked up in the late nineties, moreover, the economic concerns that motivated the law became less important. Finally, while the emphasis on negotiation and industrial democracy were supposedly central to Aubry’s socialist vision, many felt that she ended up imposing the law in a cavalier, authoritarian manner, granting too little consideration to the particular conditions of specific industries.

The Future of a Tradition?

Several other “sites of memories” in Aubry’s career deserve mentioning. One is the corporate headquarters of Péchiney, the French aluminum conglomerate that has since been absorbed into the mining powerhouse Rio Tinto Alcan. She worked there between 1989 and 1991 (before her first ministerial assignment), serving directly under the CEO, Jean Gandois, who later led the French employers organization that fought her “thirty-five hours” laws tooth and nail. Before she made a bad name for herself in the corporate world as the “dame des trente-cinque heures,” she was considered, thanks to her experience at Péchiney, one of the more business-friendly of French socialists.

The final site that is important to Aubry is the northern industrial city of Lille, where she has been mayor since 2001. In 2000, she resigned from Jospin’s government to run in municipal elections there. Around the same time, she married and settled down with her second husband, Jean-Louis Brochen, a lawyer known for his defense of immigrant rights. She has taken a number of initiatives aimed at increasing participatory democracy in her town, in addition to helping it to transition out of its old industrial economy. Some see her enthusiasm for local politics as evidence that she does not, like many politicians, obstinately scale the highest summits of power.

Aubry, in these ways, is an heir to a legacy—the tradition of socialist humanism. She was raised a social Catholic and educated in the ideas of the CFTC and the CFDT, the pillars of the anti-statist, democratic “second left.” Her belief in social progress and industrial democracy informed her crafting of the Auroux laws. As the author of the “thirty-five hours” law, she contributed to a longstanding goal of the international labor movement, while simultaneously attempting (however unsuccessfully) to breathe new life into collective bargaining. Even her business experience is consistent with her upbringing: social Catholicism, despite its emphasis on improving the conditions of the working class, never adopted a confrontational attitude towards business and sought to draw compassionate executives to its cause. As mayor of Lille, she continues the venerable tradition of municipal socialism.

Though Aubry, like François Hollande and other socialist “elephants,” is a creature of the ENA and of the party’s debilitating infighting, she can lay claim to a degree of socialist authenticity that is growing increasingly rare within the PS. But will the French, at a time of acute anxieties about globalization and the global economic crisis, see this tradition as providing solution for the present? Clearly (as her electoral manifesto suggests), Aubry hopes they will. She calls for a “tough left,” favoring measures that will actively create jobs and increase purchasing power (“le pouvoir d’achat”). She wants to make corporations socially responsible, offering them financial incentives if they reinvest their profits and forcing them to pay back public subsidies if they outsource. She proposes a system of lifelong job training credits (reminiscent of the Danish “flexicurity” program) and wants employee representatives to sit on corporate boards (as in the German model).

Aubry will provide, to some, a reassuring mixture of socialist authenticity and practical experience. But she may be too radical for centrist voters (who might prefer Hollande), and too centrist for many on the left (as well as for the politically amorphous youth). As a keeper of the socialist tradition, she has some appeal, at a time when capitalism once again has a bad name. But her support for European integration, her investment in France’s complex system of industrial relations will be seen by some as proof that she is too much of an establishment figure. For these voters, the socialist tradition simply does not seem radical enough.

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2 responses to “The Tradition-Keeper: Martine Aubry

  1. “She wants to make corporations socially responsible”,..
    Is this possible? I had rather start new cooperatives to pave the way towards another society…

    • I am sure you are right, camarade! She’s a reformist. But I think she is a reformist “conséquente.” And while I do believe that in politics, one must often accept the least bad—le moins pire—I fear that Aubry was on the mark when she identified Hollande with la gauche molle … “the flabby left”…

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