France: Millions strike against attack on pensions

An attack on workers’ pensions by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has combined with other issues, particularly education decentralisation, to fuel a massive response by workers the length and breadth of France.

This movement has surpassed the struggles of 1995, when the then Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, tried to impose similar measures but was forced to back down by three weeks of public sector strikes. It is presently escalating, with the possibility of a confrontation developing on the scale of 1968 – when ten million workers went on strike, threatening the survival of the capitalist system.

Two single days of protest action in February and April were followed by large May Day demonstrations, in which 300,000 people participated. The movement then took a huge leap forward with a day of strikes and demonstrations on 13 May by up to two million workers in 115 towns and cities. A majority of public sector workers were involved in that mobilisation – at least 57%. It included a strike and demonstration in Marseille in which 200,000 people participated, leading the newspaper Libération to describe the city as both "dead" and "living" on that day; dead, because there was no public transport and little traffic, yet alive, because of the swarms of people on the streets.

Public sector workers are enraged by the right-wing government’s plan to worsen their pensions. Among other measures, they will have to work for 40 years instead of 37.5 to get full pension entitlement. But the movement has gone beyond the specific attacks that triggered a mass response. Workers now recognise the threat neo-liberalist policies pose to all French working people. Not only does everyone use public services, but also, in France, a quarter of the workforce is in the public sector and half of all households have at least one family member working for it. So it is not surprising that most workers support the movement.

Some sections of public service workers involved in the strikes, such as in the rail, post and energy sectors, would not be affected by the present pension cut plans, but they are bringing their own concerns over privatisation, job losses and cuts into the movement. Teachers are not directly affected by the decentralisation proposals for schools (they apply to non-teaching staff) but they are leading the struggle against them, realising it is a fundamental attack on the state provision of services. They correctly see the measures as a path towards cuts and privatisation. And private sector workers, who were hardly involved in the 1995 strikes, are participating this time. In recent years, they have suffered tens of thousands of job losses, poorer working conditions, low pay and know they are in line for further attacks on their own pension rights. Contingents from the private sector were present on the 13 May demonstrations, including a quarter of the Michelin tyre workers, many car workers and 900 metal workers from Alstrom.

Many strikers decided to extend the action by staying out on 14 May, as metro, bus and rail workers did in the Paris region. Following 13/14 May, a series of days of mobilisation have taken place, with education workers in the forefront. These actions have involved substantial numbers, such as the 700,000 people who turned out in 70 towns and cities on 19 May. A massive demonstration of over one million people took place on Sunday 25 May in Paris (see last week’s Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales), with demonstrations taking place elsewhere too on the same day, such as one of 50,000 in Marseille. Not prominent at first, school and college students are increasingly entering the struggle, angered at government propaganda that says their teachers are acting against their interests by preventing exams from taking place.

3 June battle

The next major mobilisation, the tenth since the movement began, has been called for Tuesday 3 June, by four trade union federations, and will involve workers from hospitals, education, transport, post, telecom, gas, electricity, the Bank of France. It will also include private sector workers, who are increasingly involved in the struggles. Given the present mood, it is likely to reach general strike proportions in some cities and maybe nationally. Already in many towns and cities, as many as one in ten of the population have directly participated in protests and a recent poll showed that two-thirds of French people support them.

Trade union federation leaders have been struggling to keep themselves at the head of the movement while at the same time trying to stop it from developing into a general strike. Not having any perspective that differs much from the failed policies of the Socialist Party (PS) and Communist Party (PC) leaders, they fear further development of the mass movement and the prospect of it developing along the lines of 1968.

Leaders of the CFDT, one of the three main union federations in the public sector, have signed up to Raffarin’s ‘reforms’ to great anger from their rank and file. Large contingents of CFDT workers took part in the 25 May demonstration, furious following their leadership’s capitulation. The other two main federations in the public sector, the CGT and Force Ouvrière (FO), are still trying to head the movement, but a general strike is "not called for", according to the leadership of the CGT. Marc Blondel, the leader of Force Ouvrière, was quoted in the newspaper Le Monde as dismissing a general strike and saying it is of a "political, insurrectionary nature"! But they are under intense pressure from below, and dragged along by it, have been forced to back or call for the repeated days of mobilisation, while also trying to make sure there are days in between to stop continuity of action and a momentum building up. However, at present, the movement is growing rapidly, and with a large layer of workers recognising the need for a general strike of public and private sector workers, the prospect of one is inherent in the situation.

Tension in government

In the face of the scale of this movement, there is great tension in Raffarin’s government. Following the 1995 climb-down of Juppé, Raffarin is under pressure, from a capitalist class fearful of reduced income and profits, to push through his cuts programme. Their fear stems from an economic situation that is far worse than in 1995, as a result of a collapse in the growth rate (a fall "as steep as the upper slopes of the Eiffel Tower", according to one commentator), which is linked to the developing crisis in the world economy. The public spending deficit has gone over the Eurozone limit of 3% of GDP and the economy is likely to be shown as being in recession when full figures are known. The government wants workers to pay the price of the crisis through conducting a rapid assault on the welfare state.

However, terrified at the growing strike movement, some government ministers have warned of the danger of trying to do too much, too quickly, which has already led to a postponement of university autonomy legislation and discussions on deferring it for schools. This is with the aim of trying to achieve their main objective, pension cuts.

The union leaders, desperate for the government to negotiate a deal that they can try to pass off as a significant concession, may yet find a way to derail the movement. But French workers are at present extremely confident, combative and intent on pursuing the battle further. When Raffarin arrogantly stated: "The street doesn’t rule", workers responded with warnings such as: "Raffarin should remember that the street elected him" and "revolutions start in the street".

Workers in many areas are reviving a tradition of holding open rank and file ‘general assemblies’, meeting daily in some cases to vote on continued action and to discuss strike plans. They vary from assemblies based on one establishment, to cross-sector bodies involving public and private sectors, as exists in Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand and Marseille.

Activists in Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), the French section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, are playing a leading role in their local workers’ assemblies and realise the key role these bodies can play in building for a general strike. They call for a determined plan to develop them and argue that they should be delegate-based with all delegates subject to recall, cross-linked between the public and private sectors and linked up between regions and nationally.

Need for a mass workers’ party

Following the move to the right of the PS and PC, GR also recognises the need for a new mass workers’ party. The PS has verbally moved to the left under pressure of the movement and backed the 25 May demonstration, but would be attempting its own cuts programme if it were in power, as Shroeder’s Social Democratic Party is presently doing in Germany.

The French Trotskyist organisations, LCR and Lutte Ouvrière, had a combined vote of over 10% in the first round of the Presidential elections last year, yet have so far failed to capitalise on that support and to adopt programmes that can take the present workers’ struggles forward and lay the basis for a new party.

With the French government digging in for a Thatcherite policy, the need for an indefinite general strike is urgent. Workers need to link up their struggles and pose a workers’ alternative to the rule of Raffarin and Chirac on the right and also to the left representatives of the capitalist system. A general strike would reveal the potential power that the working class holds in society and would raise the need for a government of workers’ representatives. This could proceed to introduce public ownership of the major companies and banks and a socialist plan of production, to lay the basis for a socialist society that would guarantee decent services and living standards for all.

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June 2003