“Social Democracy. The expression returns as an aspiration in the mobilization against the pension reform. Faced with Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to receive the unions, the secretary general of the CFDT Laurent Berger deplored, on March 11, “a form of denial of social democracy”. The day before, after the premature interruption of the debates in the Senate, the communist senator Pierre Ouzoulias compared this political episode to the demonstration of March 7, speaking of “a beautiful day for social democracy, a sad night for parliamentary democracy”.
Whether it is considered flouted or possibly reinforced by the union front, “social democracy” is a term enshrined in many laws, but its precise definition is nowhere to be found. “It’s a polysemous concept, which looks a bit like a Spanish inn: everyone finds what they bring,” says Dominique Andolfatto, professor of political science at the University of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (1).
It covers varied realities, not mutually exclusive: a form of democracy aimed at freeing citizens from economic and social injustice; relations between trade unions and employers based on mechanisms borrowing from the procedures of political democracy (in particular elections and majority voting); the procedures relating to the participation of employees in the company; or even everything that relates to joint action in the management of large organizations, such as Social Security or unemployment insurance…
The inspiration of reformist socialism
In terms of the history of political ideas, the first occurrences of the notion go back to the socialist Louis Blanc, who, in L’Organisation du travail (1839) sketched out the project of a “social Republic”, articulating political democracy and democracy social. The idea will then be carried by reformist socialist thought, in particular by Jean Jaurès, then Léon Blum who, in On the human scale (1945), writes: “Political democracy will not be viable if it does not flourish in social democracy; social democracy would be neither real nor stable if it were not based on political democracy. »
In its philosophy, social democracy is based on the idea that political democracy does not exhaust the representation of citizens and that the latter, to be effective, must necessarily be supplemented by a role of regulation and participation given to the actors of the civil society. According to the sociologist and philosopher Robert Castel, social democracy implies “the recognition of the interests and rights (of) citizens and their possibilities of intervening in public life based on the place they occupy in society and the social activity that they display there” (2).
As far as pension reform is concerned, the current laws did not require the state to enter into an agreement with the unions, only to consult them. In spite of everything, this question is indeed part of the spirit as well as the objectives of social democracy. “However, the planned consultation between the unions and the government on this subject was a sham,” regrets Jacky Bontems, vice-president of the think tank Living Democracy. For this former number 2 of the CFDT, social democracy is today “weakened by the very vertical exercise of power by Emmanuel Macron, who refers trade unionism to companies and branches of activity and considers that it has no legitimacy to intervene on social or societal problems”.
A social chill
This cold spell under the Macron presidency follows two decades of intense legislative work around social democracy (Larcher law of 2007, law on the renovation of social democracy of 2008, Sapin law of 2014, etc.). But “these new provisions relating in particular to the public financing of trade unions or their representation in the company have not succeeded in making social democracy more fluid, believes Dominique Andolfatto. We can say that social democracy has become becalmed: we have a whole pipeline of texts, but what gets in the way is the lack of trust between the partners”.
In France, the Jacobin State has always preferred to have atomized individuals in front of it, points out in turn the philosopher Pierre-Olivier Monteil (3). “At the time of the French Revolution, the intermediary bodies were abolished in the name of the fight against conservative forces, with the Le Chapelier law (1791). Today, it is in the name of a state that guarantees the neoliberal order that an atomized society is promoted. »
Is the current mobilization against the pension reform likely to revitalize social democracy in France? “Social conflict has often enabled progress in the institutions and mechanisms of social democracy, but it is not the only source,” notes historian Alain Chatriot, professor at Sciences Po Paris and specialist in economic and social policies. . The attitude of certain politicians consisting in despising – tacitly or openly – the various intermediary bodies will perhaps finally disappear… But nothing is less certain and I find it difficult to be optimistic. »
“We can hope for a rebound in social democracy through the renewed credibility, confidence and sympathy that the trade union front has been able to generate”, wants to believe Jacky Bontems. The massive support of public opinion for the opposition of the trade unions signals in any case the greater recognition of their role as mediator and relay of the world of work (on hardship, end of career, etc.) vis-à-vis politicians. In the name of a principle, stated by the American philosopher John Dewey, according to which “the one who wears the shoe knows best if it hurts him and where it hurts him, even if the competent shoemaker is the best judge to know how to remedy the defect” (The Public and its Problems, 1927).
But to expect a revival of social democracy, it would still be necessary for the unions to assert themselves as credible partners, after four decades of weakening and while “the most protesting among them still reproach social democracy for bring oxygen to a capitalism of which they wish to accelerate the end”, points out the political scientist Dominique Andolfatto. “This means mobilizing employees without confiscating their voice, reinventing citizenship at work. And to avoid the pitfalls of a trade unionism far from its base, which apes representative democracy, with the same faults. »
The key dates of social democracy
1874. Recognition of freedom of association.
1924-1940. Experience of the National Economic Council (1924-1940) set up by the Cartel des gauches.
15 mars 1944. The program of the National Council of Resistance (CNR) declares itself in favor of “economic and social democracy”.
1946. The preamble to the Constitution of the Fourth Republic states that “every worker participates, through his delegates, in the collective determination of working conditions as well as in the management of companies”. Creation of the Economic and Social Council. Major social protection laws.
1958. The preamble to the Fifth Republic states that the Republic is “indivisible, secular, democratic and social”.
1982. Lois Auroux strengthening employee representative institutions.
2007. Larcher law which provides the right for the representatives of employees and employers to negotiate, prior to the intervention of Parliament, any bill concerning labor relations.