France: One and half million demonstrate against Raffarin’s attacks

The streets of Paris resounded to the beat of drums and marching feet, this Sunday (25 May). Music blared. Rail workers ignited red flares filling the air with smoke. It was a riot of colour. Massive balloons marked out trade union contingents, flags waved. Banners and placards spelled out the demands: No to the government’s attack on pension provision, No to the ‘decentralisation’ of education.

French workers are on the move against a whole raft of cutbacks and attacks from the right-wing conservative government led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The CGT and FO trade union federations had called this demo. But even they could not have expected one-and-a-half million. Indeed, they have put the figure at 600,000! But this is a gross underestimate. Assembling at Place de la Nation from 10 am, it was due to march off at twelve. Yet it could not move for hours and the police opened up two parallel routes for the march to go down to cope with the huge numbers. Even then, as with the huge anti-war demo in London on 15 February, many people frustrated with waiting took to the side streets on the way to the final rallying point at Place d’Italie.

Wide sections of French society were present and came from all over the country. Public-sector workers were predominant, however: teachers and lecturers, health workers, rail workers, inland revenue staff and firefighters. Significantly; they were joined by smaller contingents from the private sector, such as Dunlop and Citroën.

The government pension ‘reform’ is a fundamental attack on the public sector. Workers will have to work for 40 years before they are entitled to a full pension, as opposed to 37.5 today. And this is set to rise to nearly 42 by 2020. This represents a determined attempt by the French capitalist class to take back some key social provisions won by the hard struggle of the working class in the past. The plan to ‘decentralise’ education aims to cut state spending, open up education to big business, undermine pay and conditions, and lower education provision for working-class students.

The festive mood on the streets of Paris belied the growing determination and rising anger; especially on the part of those on strike. Although called by the unions, many of the contingents were from local or, in cases such as Le Havre, city-wide Assemblées Générales (AG) which organise the day-to-day running of the strikes. These rank-and-file activists are the most determined and uncompromising sections, rejecting any negotiations on the pension counter-reform, demanding its complete withdrawal.

There is bitter anger, too, directed towards the leaders of the CFDT union confederation for signing up to a compromise deal with the government – over the heads of the activists – with large numbers of CFDT members on the march.

Uncharacteristically for France, students have not yet been involved on a mass scale. Often in the past it has been this section which has kick-started the workers’ movement. But they are increasingly coming on to the scene. Initiatives are being taken to link school and college students, and parents not involved directly in the strikes, with the strikers, to cut across a government-driven propaganda campaign aimed at dividing the movement.

The momentum of the struggle is clearly towards a public-sector general strike. But this is being driven from the pressure from below – from the AGs in particular. The union leaders are dragging their feet, fearing that they could lose control of the situation if the strikes become more generalised and linked. It is the activists in the AGs who are maintaining the local and regional activity – pickets, blockades and demos – and linking up with the private sector.

In the face of the union leaders’ hesitancy, the government has maintained a tough stance. But it has a hard fight on its hands. The sheer size of the demonstration has stiffened the resolve of the movement. Tuesday’s public-sector shutdown – involving education, transport, health, post, and telecoms workers – and the second massive demo in Paris two days, proves this point.

A poll in Le Parisien, published on last Sunday evening, said that 74% expected the ‘social movement’ to continue, with 65% approving of the demonstration. The French working class has a rich history of determined, militant action. Once again, it is preparing itself for a massive showdown with the capitalist ruling class.

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May 2003