France: Pension reform, towards a general strike

After the magnificent mobilisation of Tuesday, 13 May, against the government’s proposed pension reform, the biggest trade-union confederation (CFDT), together with the CGC, signed a deal with the right wing government. Will this unholy alliance of the governing party – the UMP – and the national leadership of the CFDT succeed in stemming the rising wave of militancy against the neo-liberal policies of the Raffarin government?

The pension plans have acted as a catalyst in uniting different protest actions, movements and strikes against this government. Until now, this anger has found its most massive expression in more than 115 demonstrations across France on Tuesday, 13 May. Between 1.1 and 1.8 million people came out onto the streets, according to the figures from the police and the CGT. This first high point brought together striking teachers and educational staff, postmen, hospital workers, national rail employees and important delegations from the private sector.

Monday, 19 May, public sector workers went on strike. Teachers, postmen, council workers and nurses took to the streets in numerous demonstrations throughout France. The biggest mobilisations occurred in Paris and Marseille. In Marseille up to a hundred thousand took to the streets and public transport started an all out strike. According to the CGT about 700.000 workers joined the demonstrations across the country to protest against the attacks on public services and the proposed pension reform by the Raffarin government. In Lyon tens of thousands came out in spite of torrential rain. In Lille, in the north of the country, 20.000 marched.

While these demonstrations where smaller than the demos on the last national day of action on 13 May they do represent a step forward for the workers’ movement against Raffarin as the strike drew in new layers and the demonstrations across the country showed younger workers being in the front ranks of the movement. The national education strike was particularly strong yesterday with up to 70% of the workforce on strike.

Pressure is mounting as the government and the media have begun a campaign to blame the strikers if national exams, due to take place in a month’s time, are endangered. Luc Ferry, Minister of Education, has called on the teachers not to take their pupils hostage. According to the newsreaders on national television, different associations of parents are increasingly worried.

When talking to teachers you hear another side of the story, especially from those who work in schools in poorer neighbourhoods. When in Rouen, at a school where one of the members of Gauche révolutionnaire teaches, the striking teachers organised an action and asked the parents to keep their children at home for a day, to show their opposition to the plans of the government, only 15 out of a total of 400 pupils were sent to school. In other schools parents have taken part in picket lines, have organised solidarity meetings and have discussed amongst themselves to organise joint action with the teachers.

Again, as on the 13 May demos, delegations of private sector workers came to the 20 May demonstrations. Clearly sections of workers in France are preparing for a general all out strike against the government and its plans. The CGT and FO are calling for a national mobilisation in Paris against the government on Sunday 25 May.

The pension reform

The pension reform is the centrepiece of the government’s attacks on the living standards and conditions of millions of public and private sector workers in France. If Raffarin and Fillon, the minister of social affairs, get their way, workers in the public sector and the private sector will have to work longer before being entitled to a full pension. By 2008 public sector workers will have to pay contributions for 40 years instead of the 37.5 they pay now. That would bring them into line with the private sector, where the qualifying period was lengthened from 37.5 to 40 years by a law passed by Edouard Balladur in 1993.

For the ruling classes this is not enough. To guarantee their profits, they want to make a decisive break with the pension system. For now the Fillon plan proposes to lengthen the period of contributions to 42 years by 2020 for both the public and the private sector. The principle, rather than the actual agreement itself, is important here as Fillon has declared that from 2008 onwards, the length of service will be revised every five years to keep up with life expectancy!

Furthermore the government plans include measures to limit the actual amount of the pension directly by changing the formula on which the calculations are made. The plans foresee that workers who get the minimum wage (SMIC) will have to be satisfied with a pension that amounts to 85% of that wage. if they get the chance to work for 42 years and not have to spend a couple of years being unemployed.

Unemployment and education reform

Unemployment in France has risen sharply in the last couple of months. Official unemployment stands at 9.2% and keeps rising. In March alone more than 27,500 people have lost their jobs. This is one of the legacies of the last Gauche Plurielle (PS – PCF) government that did much to make the labour laws more flexible and drove people into temporary and short-term contract work. The government’s attack on the public sector is a precursor to what it has in store for all workers. President Chirac and Prime Minister Raffarin want to keep their election promise to the ruling class of France: – less taxes for the rich, putting the state on a diet and keeping the budget deficit in check.

Teachers and non-teaching staff have been in the forefront of a struggle against the government and its plans. They started taking action in November last year against what is known as the "decentralisation" plan of Raffarin.

Decentralisation would break away all non-teaching staff from under the responsibility of the national department of education. Classroom assistants, technical staff, and other employees – in total 110,000 jobs – would come under the organisational and financial responsibility of the regional and departmental authorities. It would lead to the pooling of different services and their organisation away from the schools. It would mean mass redundancies and privatisations.

On the 13 May, between 60 and 70% of all staff involved in national education went on strike. More than 2,000 schools are now on indefinite strike. The striking teachers have developed their own committees and general assemblies have actively involved the parents of students. When the government announced its pension reform, striking teachers played an important role in going out to other public services with the aim of building a united movement against it. These actions and the involvement of other public sector workers, campaigning against particular reforms in their workplace, have pushed the trade-union leaderships of the different confederations to take a stand against the government.

The relentless and growing pressure from the grassroots level forced the trade unions to call for three national days of action against the pension reform, the biggest on the 13 May. Raffarin, only days before, stated that it was not up to ‘the street’ to govern and Fillon, the Minister of Social Affairs, the day of the strike stated that no fundamental changes could be made. Both have been driven back to the negotiating table.

A deal and an escalation

After the first round of negotiations broke down, the CFDT and CGC were contacted the morning after and signed an agreement that gives only minor concessions from the government. Legally this is enough for the government to push ahead and pass its plans through parliament at the beginning of July. The treachery of the CFDT-leader, Chérèque, has created an outcry amongst the activists and inside the CFDT. Different regional leaderships of the CFDT – the most outspoken being those of Nord-Pas-de-Calais – have spoken out publicly, questioning the union’s internal democracy, demanding a vote of the membership and in some cases demanding the resignation of Chérèque. The seven trade-union confederations which represent the railway workers, including the CFDT confederation, have announced an all-out strike of the railways beginning Sunday 25 May.

The CGT and FO have repeated their call for a national demonstration against the pension reform and the plans of the government on Sunday 25 May. More than a million – some say more than 2 million workers from the public and the private sectors are expected to come to Paris. It is entirely possible that this splits the CFDT down the middle and isolates the government further. This is especially if, as on the 13 May demonstrations, a significant part of private sector workers take part in the demonstrations and the strikes on the railways and in national education succeed in drawing other public sector workers, and parts of the private sector, in behind them.

President Chirac has made it clear before that the present government is not irreplaceable and he could be forced to sacrifice part, or all, of the government to ease the pressure. The French ruling class is determined, however, to push through its counter-reforms and is preparing for a showdown.

What alternative?

The present government came to power after the presidential elections, a little more than a year ago. The parties of the Gauche Plurielle paid heavily for their neo-liberal policies in government with Jospin – the Socialist Party (PS) candidate and prime minister – only coming third in the first round after Chirac and Le Pen. The Left and radical left were stunned and paralysed by the second round victory of Chirac with more than 80% of the vote and the subsequent formation of a right wing government headed by Raffarin.

The PS held its congress last weekend and tried to surf on the wave of discontent and regain some of its authority. Laurent Fabius, representative of the right wing inside the PS, called for a national referendum on the pension reform. Hollande, the new leader of the PS, tried to impose unity after months of quarrelling and called on the party to oppose the government under the banner of ‘left reformist socialism’. What the PS didn’t agree on, however, was what alternative it had itself to the pension reform of Raffarin. Fundamentally, they agree with the need to reform the system and are willing to serve the ruling class with similar measures.

Left rhetoric might have an electoral impact. The recent changes to the electoral system, which mean parties have to obtain 10 or 12% to get through to the second round, pushes French politics towards a two party system and will result in numbers of workers casting what they see as a "useful vote". But, after its last period in government, the PS has to win authority outside the party.

Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the CGT, was invited as a special guest to the PS congress just to deliver some such authority – an attempt to tie the hands of the working class to the PS.

The PCF has called its activists out on 20 May for a day of action and urged them to distribute leaflets outside factory gates and other workplaces. The LCR and LO having had 10.44% of the votes in the April 2002 first round of the presidential elections, once again squandered the opportunity to build a new force. After failing to take a principled initiative to form a new socialist workers party, they fell back to 2.86% in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

What is needed is the construction of a political force which defends the interests of the working class and takes up its demands. Whether it is on pensions, on public services, wages or working conditions, these demands have to be linked with the struggle against capitalism.

The ruling classes will always try to crawl out of economic crises, which are of their own making, on the backs of the working class. While the new political force that is needed today would have to fight for every reform and defend everything the working class has been able to achieve through struggle, capitalism gives no guarantee when it comes to the living conditions and standards of the majority of the people.

In stark contrast, with the existing technology and wealth, it would be possible to build a society based on a democratically planned mode of production, a society where the decisive sectors of the economy would be brought under public ownership with democratic workers’ control and management. Instead, capitalism sows further impoverishment of the many and enrichment of a tiny few. We need to create a new mass party of the working class, armed with the ideas of socialism, to end what is permanent trench warfare against the working and poor masses.

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