France: Rage grows at Raffarin’s pension “reforms”

Across France in countless villages, towns and cities, French workers from both the private and public sector, students and young people demonstrated in their hundreds of thousands and took strike action on Tuesday 3 June, expressing their growing determination to fight against the right-wing Raffarin government’s pension "reforms". Undoubtedly the mood of the demonstrators and strike activists is more politicised and enraged than on previous mobilisations. This is a result of the government’s arrogance and its continuing intransigence regarding its attempt to open a more generalised attack on the social welfare system through increasing the number of years public sector workers have to work from 37.5 to 40 years in order to get a full pension (amongst other measures).

The main trade union federations said that over 1.5 million demonstrated and took strike action on 3 June – the government laughably say only 450,000 – using figures provided by the police. This is part of the latter’s propaganda campaign that the movement passed its peak on 13 May (when 2 million took strike action and demonstrated) and that they will implement the attack in full. As Air Marshal Dominique Dord, responsible for following public opinion trends within the government party, the UMP, commented following the strike: "Whatever happens in the street we will hold firm. The agenda is set". According to opinion polls 60% support the strikes.

Although it is true that the number participating this time was not as great as the turnout on the last big mobilisation of 13 May, this government spokesperson (and his political bosses) may regret his words. There were more private sector workers participating in the strikes and demonstrations than on 13 May. Also, in many areas, new sections of workers came out on strike on 3 June. For instance in Rouen, alongside the traditional militant sectors of industry such as the train drivers, chemical workers and metal workers, new sectors were involved this time, such as workers from small businesses, call centres and the finance sector. This is despite the fact that the pension attack does not directly affect them. However, important sections of workers such as those involved in construction have not yet participated in the strike action.

Public sector education workers, enraged over education decentralisation plans as well as the issue of pensions, have been leading the movement against all the government attacks and some of them such as those in a college in Paris, have been on strike for eight weeks. For the education workers, the 3 June was their tenth day of strike action. Despite this, the numbers on strike in the education sector were similar overall to 13 May with on average, 45% of workers striking.

Largest protests yet

One of the biggest actions was in Marseille, southern France, where an incredible 240,000 demonstrated (one in ten of the population)! The police claimed only 25 000 were out on the streets. This was the biggest protest so far in the city.

So too in Rouen, where 40-50, 000 demonstrated. A meeting of the cross-sector Assembl̩e G̩n̩rale (strike committee which runs the action on a day to day basis) had 450 workers in attendance after the demonstration in Rouen Рa larger number than normal. Bob Sulatycki, a CWI member and teacher from London, was applauded after he addressed the meeting explaining the common problems faced by education workers across Europe and expressing solidarity with the struggle.

This meeting implemented a plan of sending delegations of workers from different workplaces – both private and public – to visit factories in the city’s industrial belt who have not yet been out on strike, explaining the necessity for mass united action to defeat the government’s attacks. Members of Gauche Révolutionnaire, the CWI’s affiliated organisation in France, were the first to raise such a campaign of explanation and mobilisation.

In Paris, the main demonstration was over 200,000-strong and there were a number of local protests in the different parts of the greater Paris region as well. The Paris protest was a sea of union balloons, flags, banners and placards indicating the breadth and mood of the protest. "Raffarin, the school students are on the streets," said one. "Our pensions before their profits" and "to save our pensions –there is only one option – the pension of Raffarin," said others.

Even at the beginning of the demonstration there was a determined, angry mood with much chanting in support of a private and public sector general strike. By the time the demonstration moved off this had been transformed into a wall of sound as workers shouted in contingent after contingent for a general strike.

The mood of solidarity was infectious, the feeling of gathering power just below the surface. As a French daily paper, Libération commented: "Dance, orchestra, slogans and placards. In Paris there was a particular drive and enthusiasm. Passing in front of a beauty salon on the Boulevard Magenta, a group of protestors yelled: ‘The hairdressers with us’. And voila, they came out clicking their combs and scissors followed by customers, with one in curlers" (4 June 2003).

Critical phase

In the next few days, the movement against the pension attacks will reach a critical phase.

Despite the success of Tuesday’s action, the movement is in the balance. The government intends to start debating the pension legislation next Tuesday. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of strikers are prepared to give full support to a general strike. A minority is prepared to take militant action in advance of such a development, such as workers in Rouen who blocked the national autoroute (motorway) following the demonstration there. But certainly on the Paris demonstration there was rightly a feeling that more is necessary before a successful private and public sector strike could be called.

Sections of education workers have become somewhat tired by the duration of the movement – which began in February – and the way it has been divided by the union leaders into a series of separated days of mobilisation. But they and other activists understand that the government is deadly serious in attempting to implement this attack and only a massive movement will force them back.

This understanding is reflected by the response from many education workers to the government’s concession (and an attempt to split the movement against pension "reform") that the legislation on plans for decentralisation of education and the removal of national collective bargaining for non-teaching staff can be put off until September. Many activists have said they are not interested in restarting strike action in September and the government must announce the complete withdrawal of these proposals now.

Union ‘leaders’

The only barrier that stands in the way of a huge explosion of anger expressed in the form of a united general strike is the leadership of the trade union federations such as the CFDT, CGT and FO. However, it is not just their refusal to call a general strike (or their desperate and often comic attempts not to use that phrase when interviewed on television) but their active participation in sabotaging the movement by dividing the action and leaving intervals between strike days. This has partially confused and held back the French working class.

Thibault, the leader of the CGT, (a former leader of the railworkers who played an important part in the 1995 strike movement), in an interview with Libération, commented after the strike: "Some sectors will see strikes lasting several days, others will alternate between work stoppages and demonstrations. I hope that there are a multitude of initiatives that will bring together the maximum numbers of workers. This is the only way to convince the government that it cannot in all decency go ahead with legislation in such a climate of opposition" (4 June 2003). It is no accident that the newspaper entitled this interview, "Political courage, is to negotiate"!

Blondel of the FO federation expressed the same idea by saying that French workers were entering a "social marathon". But the union leaders are the ones imposing this marathon on their members! If a united private-public general strike was campaigned and built for by the trade union leaders, with the condition that it would only end when the pension "reforms" were withdrawn, the government would be forced to back down after a few days and could even be brought down!

The next strike day is Tuesday 10 June, one week after the last one. Thibault and other trade union leaders are clearly terrified. They have delayed the next action for a week to attempt to demobilise the movement further and to give the government the opportunity to provide some concessions in negotiations which may take place in the next few days.

"We are not cattle"

But the union leadership’s room for manoeuvre is limited to say the least. Chérèque, the leader of the CFDT has already signed the pension "reform" deal and faced the wrath of his members. Significantly, CFDT members in Clermont-Ferrand have rejoined the local cross sector strike committee. Also workers from major private sector companies like Citroen, Renault, and Total have recently joined the action. In Le Havre CFDT members chanted on the demonstration: "Chérèque, we are not cattle".

A provocation by the government could see a new explosion of struggle from below which could quickly grow into a movement of general strike proportions and initially go beyond the control of the trade union leaders. In the absence of this, the Assemblées Générales need to put maximum pressure on the trade union leaders to call for a general strike and take the necessary steps to organise it to force the government to withdraw the full pensions plan. Part of this process must be to warn workers of the danger of a sell-out of the movement.

A socialist alternative

Gauche R̩volutionnaire members have been arguing for the building of Assembl̩es G̩n̩rales across the public and private sectors, linking up at city, regional and national levels with all delegates mandated by their fellow workers, democratically elected and accepting the right of recall. These bodies could Рeven in the short time available Рmake a decisive difference in convincing other sectors of industry to come out on strike, explaining issues patiently and clearly without issuing ultimatums as some far left groups have done.

But the struggle goes beyond that. This strike movement has shown the lack of a political alternative for French workers to turn to. It is necessary to build a new party that will represent the interests of the working class. The PSF (Socialist Party), when in government together with the Communist Party and the Greens, carried through more privatisations and other anti-working class pro-capitalist policies than the previous right-wing government, thereby paving the way for Chirac and the UMP to come to power. Activists from the Assemblées Générales, together with representatives of community campaigns, and other organisations could form the basis, over time, of a new mass workers’ party in France.

Many workers are clear that the pension "reforms" are the first of many planned attacks of the government who, under pressure of a developing capitalist economic crisis, believe they can no longer afford the social welfare system.

It is not clear at this stage whether an indefinite general strike will develop. If it were to develop, it could force the government to withdraw the pensions "reform" and could even bring down the government. It would lead to big sections of the French workers questioning the capitalist system and looking for a revolutionary socialist alternative to it. It would pose the need for a government of workers’ representatives rather than the present corrupt politicians of different political colours who inhabit the system.

A government of the working people, based on the building and strengthening of the Assemblées Générales at city, regional and national level in France could use its massive potential power to completely break with capitalism. It could lay the basis for genuine socialism with the running of the economy and society on the basis of a democratic plan of production. This would need the nationalisation of the major monopolies, banks and financial institutions and the introduction of a system of democratic workers’ control and management so that the economy could be planned in the interests of the overwhelming majority, rather than for the profits of a few.

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June 2003