France: Ongoing strikes and protests

Strikes and protest actions are continuing across France on a daily basis, against the Raffarin government’s pension ‘reform’ plans.

Following strike mobilisations of two million workers on 13 May and 1.5 million on 3 June, the next major day of action is on the day the pension plans are being presented to parliament, 10 June. Although the overall number on strike was less on 3 June compared with 13 May, there were more private sector workers involved, and some cities, such as Marseille and Rouen, had their largest demonstrations yet.

In between these large actions, there are strikes every day in many areas and sectors, such as in transport, health and education together with demonstrations outside town halls and offices of the bosses’ organisation, Medef. Staff in many schools and colleges have been on continuous strike for up to two months; 3,000 schools and colleges were affected by strike action on 5 June alone.

Government postpones education plans

Under pressure of the movement, the government is postponing its education decentralisation plans. But education workers want them withdrawn completely, and still faced with government intransigence on the issue of pensions, cross-sector workers’ protests are becoming increasingly angry. A wide variety of initiatives are being taken, including occupations, and blockades of roads, transport depots and railway lines. For instance, in Rouen on 6 June, 800 activists constructed early morning bonfires to partially block roundabouts in the industrial area of the city. They then leafleted the long queues of traffic that formed, explaining why they were taking the action and striking teachers handed out "Why I am late" notes for the drivers to give to their employers!

On the previous day, all 17 roads into Toulouse were blockaded by workers, bringing commercial activity in the city to a virtual halt. Also, on 6 June, 50 angry teachers at a college in Nantes, held captive for two hours two representatives of the UMP, the right-wing ruling government party, who had gone to officially open a new hall. "Their arrival was a provocation," explained one of the teachers.

Union leaders avoid general strike

The call for a general strike is loud and clear in trade union contingents on the demonstrations, but the union federation leaders are desperate to avoid such a confrontation with the government. So while most of these ‘leaders’ are being forced under pressure from below to give general support to the movement, they have refused to back the call for a general strike and name a day. Yet the need for an indefinite united public-private sector general strike is urgent, as the government is standing firm in the face of actions by different sections of workers on different days, interspersed with one-day more united mobilisations that have not yet involved a majority from the private sector.

Although the mood and determination of a layer of activists has hardened, this is unfortunately alongside signs of fatigue and disillusionment by others caused by the union leaders’ strategy of disparate, drawn-out action. A general strike, carefully prepared for by the rank and file strike committees and the union leaders, is the next step needed in the movement and the only sure way to win a fast victory and force Raffarin to withdraw all his ’reforms’. Without a general strike, the outcome of this widespread struggle is in the balance, though with important experiences being gained along the way.

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June 2003