France: Workers on the move

ON JUNE 12 the two central leaders of the French trade union movement came down to Marseille to address a mass rally at the end of a 260,000-strong demonstration. Bernard Thibault, leader of the Confederation General des Travailleurs (CGT), and Marc Blondel, leader of Force Ouvrière (FO), left Paris to pay tribute to the public sector workers of France’s second city, at the forefront of a national strike movement.

France has been gripped by a sweeping protest movement against the neo-liberal measures of Raffarin’s right-wing government. KARL DEBBAUT writes.

Workers on the move

The crowd greeted Thibault with loud calls for a general strike, as they voiced their impatience with the succession of separate national days of action and began to demand an alternative way forward for the social movement. Thibault began his speech by denouncing the government for refusing a televised public debate on pension reform with the trade union leaders: "it’s a pity for the country and democracy… The government’s stance is intolerable". Tens of thousands interrupted him with calls for a general strike, but Thibault continued. "We demand new negotiations, we have no choice but to continue to call for mobilisations to force the government to negotiate… There will be another mobilisation next week". Unable to ignore the strikers’ demands completely he said, "You have made your opinion clear", as again calls for a general strike go up. "If it [the movement] continues, maybe that will arise". More calls for a general strike greeted the end of his speech.

Then came Blondel, who first had to ask the crowd to calm down to allow him to begin his speech. But when he said "we can hear the voice from the streets", and once again shouts went up for a general strike, for a second time he had to plead with the crowd for permission to continue. There was no room to doubt the wish of large layers of workers to have an all-out strike to defeat the government, at a decisive moment when to push forward or to temporarily retreat was in the balance.

The pensions ‘reform’ catalyst

THE PENSION REFORM is the centrepiece of the government’s attack on the living standards and conditions of millions of workers in France. If Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, and François Fillion, the minister of social affairs, get their way, public-sector workers will have to work, and pay contributions, for 40 years before they are entitled to a full pension. One in four of the active French population is either a civil servant, or works in a state or para-state organisation. This measure slashes the two-and-a-half year advantage public sector workers have over the private sector, as a first step towards pushing the retirement age beyond 65. The government proposes to lengthen the period of contributions to 42 years by 2020 – itself a hoax because this is designed to be the first step towards lengthening the period of contributions, and will be revised every five years from 2008 ‘to keep up with life expectancy’ (so 42 years could be introduced well before 2020). The pension reform is part of a determined and more general attempt by the French ruling class to take back some key social provisions won by the hard struggle of the French working class in the past. It is part of the right-wing government’s project to cut public spending, lower taxes for the rich, and keep the budget deficit inside the limits set out by the European stability pact.

Through scraping a growth rate of 0.3% of GDP for the first three months of 2003, the French economy only narrowly avoided two consecutive quarters of negative growth (like Germany or the Netherlands) but it hasn’t escaped the economic crisis of European capitalism. Consumer confidence has been low throughout 2002 and 2003; corporate investment was negative for the last three quarters of 2002 (and only picked up with 0.5% growth in the first quarter of this year), and unemployment is rising steadily. Officially it stands at 9.3% and there has been a barrage of redundancies in the private sector in recent months. In March alone, 27,500 workers lost their jobs.

Latest estimates forecast that this year’s budget deficit will reach 4% of GDP, overshooting the European Union (EU) ‘growth and stability pact’ by a full percentage point. However, for the ruling class there is more at stake than the risk of a heavy fine from the EU. In 1995, the right-wing government of prime minister Alain Juppé, under the patronage of president Jacques Chirac, was forced to retreat after three weeks of public sector strikes against pension reforms.

That defeat opened the way for the right’s defeat in the next round of parliamentary elections, in May 1997, leading to an uneasy ‘cohabitation’ between president Chirac and the ‘gauche plurielle’ government of the Parti Socialiste (PS), the Parti Communiste (PCF) and the Greens (under prime minister Lionel Jospin). Uneasy, because the workers’ movement had defeated the bourgeoisie’s preferred ‘shock programme’ to slash the acquis sociaux (acquired social rights) and thereby reset the economy on a neo-liberal basis. Instead the 1997-2002 Jospin government ate away at workers’ rights more gradually – although still privatising more than any government before – and in the process deepened the political crisis by undermining its credibility amongst big layers of workers and thereby its usefulness for the ruling class. In an opinion poll taken the week after the massive demonstration on Sunday 25 May, 47% said they thought the PS would be neither better nor worse in dealing with pension reform (47% said the same on education reform and 50% on health reform). This shows the consciousness of the French workers that the PS, like all other social-democratic parties in Europe, is completely bourgeoisiefied. A failure by the Raffarin government to push through the pension reform this time around would paralyse the political system and strip the present government of all credibility. Although some observers say it was Chirac’s plan to use him and then replace him by a more popular figure, any succeeding government would lack authority for the remaining four years of this legislature.

The social movement emerges

THE PENSION PLANS have acted as a catalyst in uniting different actions, movements and strikes against the government and its plans. The teachers and non-teaching staff have been in the forefront of the struggle against Raffarin’s ‘decentralisation’ plan. Raffarin, a little known provincial politician before his appointment as prime minister, has championed this devolution as his most important political project. Its initial aim was to cut state spending by transferring 110,000 non-teaching staff from the responsibility of the ministry of national education (and therefore the national budget) to regional and departmental authorities (although in a partial concession Raffarin withdrew 20,000 workers from this plan).

Teachers and non-teaching staff started the movement against these plans in Autumn last year. They set up committees and local general assemblies, inviting parents and the local community to participate, and explained what the proposals would mean. Teachers, parents and local communities rallied against the closure of smaller institutions, future privatisations, and the growing influence of big business in education. In spite of months of media black out they pulled together the general assemblies of different schools on a city wide, regional and later a national level. On different websites, created by activists, a daily and lively debate takes place (for example, argues that all students should be given top grades this year in the baccalauréat, the national entrance exam to university; or which argues for action to be retaken in September).

The eleven separate national days of action organised by the teachers and their unions pulled in behind them other sections of public-sector workers under attack from the government. These actions generated the confidence for a massive response to the specific attack on pension rights. Two days of protest action in February and April were followed by large May Day demonstrations, with 300,000 people marching in Paris. The movement then took two huge leaps forward with a day of strikes and demonstrations on May 13 by two million workers in 115 towns and cities, and a national demonstration in Paris on May 25 of 1.5 million workers (with hundreds of thousands more marching in other cities). By mid-May the movement had gone beyond a response to the specific attacks. Public sector workers who would not have been directly affected by the pension plans brought into the movement their concerns over privatisation, job losses and cuts. Layers of private sector workers were now joining in to protest against the threat neo-liberal policies pose to all workers. On May 25 an opinion poll in the Paris daily, Le Parisien, said that 74% expected the social movement to continue, with 65% approving of the demonstration.

‘Grève générale’

AFTER THE MAY 25 demonstration, national days of action were called for the first weeks of June. In between the national days of action, local demonstrations, strikes, and occupations of town halls and buildings of the MEDEF (the employers federation) took place. Some public sector workers have extended official action days by staying out the next day, such as metro bus and rail workers in the Paris region and almost all public sector workers in Marseille, where education workers (two months) and bin workers (two weeks) were already striking for longer periods.

In the face of government defiance, wider numbers began to recognise the need for a general strike of public and private sector workers. At demonstrations, contingents of Force Ouvrière and CGT workers introduced the slogan, ‘Blondel-Thibault, Thibault-Blondel: grève générale’, calling directly upon their leaders to organise it. Contingents of the third main trade union confederation, the CFDT, were extremely angry with their leadership who had signed a deal with the government.

The leaders of FO and CGT 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. Thibault went on his knees to beg the government to reopen negotiations, warning Raffarin in Le Monde that he might not be able to stop the flood. His comments that "the government is set out to break everything", and that "we are not calling for a general strike since it would weaken the CGT for years to come", should not be misunderstood. The union leaders fear that they would not be able to control a general strike and that it would open the way for a Thatcherite attack and attempts to destroy the trade union apparatus. The 47th congress of the CGT held at the beginning of this year tried to move the goalposts for the biggest and still the most combative trade union confederation. It marked the beginning of a process in which the leadership wanted to pass from a union of ‘contestation’ (protest) to a union of ‘proposition’ (proposal). They wanted to ‘modernise’ the union into one ready to ‘share responsibilities’ for the capitalist crisis. They avoided any debate on the declining trade union membership in France (only 9% of workers are members of a union) or discuss a balance sheet of the CGT’s role.

What the leadership wants, however, the leadership does not always get. Last December, in the run up to the CGT congress, a huge blow was dealt to the whole idea of a negotiating instead of a fighting union by the workers of Electricité de France (EdF) and Gaz de France (GdF). The government had counted on overhauling the pension rights of the state-owned electricity and gas utilities in a separate deal. This was designed to both pave the way for their privatisation and to allow an agreement on pensions in these industries to set the standard for the broader public sector in the new year. Although the leadership of the main trade union confederations, including the CGT, had struck a deal, the grass roots membership rejected it in a ballot.

Force Ouvrière, for its part, in May rejected the option of a general strike with Blondel arguing that it would be ‘insurrectional’ and pose the question of a political alternative. The FO changed its position in June, however, with Blondel saying at the Marseille demonstration on June 12 that FO was in favour of a general strike but didn’t want to break the united union front.

In fact the union leaders are an obstacle on the path to a prepared general strike to defeat Raffarin’s plans. They are actively undermining the movement by dividing the action and leaving intervals between different strike days, which has allowed for tiredness and doubt to affect some public-sector workers. In the face of a general onslaught by the government, all are clear that more is needed than separate days of action. Activists in Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), the French section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, played a leading role in their local general assemblies and strike committees, realising the key role these bodies could play in building a general strike. They called for a determined plan to develop them, arguing that they should be delegate-based with all delegates subject to recall, cross-linked between public and private sectors, and linked up between regions and on a national level.

A general strike, however limited in its initial aims, would indeed pose the question of the political alternative to this government and would question capitalism itself. Amongst the advanced layers, these issues were increasingly debated at the height of the movement. The present government came to power after the elections a little more than a year ago, when former PS prime minister Lionel Jospin picked up the bill for five years of neo-liberal policies by coming third in the first round of the presidential elections. After the first round some on the left, notably the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and the leadership of the trade unions, argued that the second round run-off should become a referendum against Jean-Marie Le Pen (leader of the far-right Front National – FN) and called in effect for a vote for Chirac. This is but one of the debates that is being re-opened by workers in the course of the struggle as they look for the reasons why this government is so strong and confident. Gauche Révolutionnaire’s position in the second round, recognising that Le Pen had no hope of winning, was to cast a blank vote and, most importantly, to argue that opposition to Le Pen and Chirac had to be built on the streets. (See Socialism Today No.66, June 2002) We called on the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière (LO), who had polled a combined vote of more than 10% in the first round of the presidential elections, to take the initiative to begin to build a new mass force of the working class. Yet both these organisations have failed to capitalise on their 2002 vote by adopting a programme that can take the workers’ struggle forward and lay the basis for a new party.

Such a new mass party of the working class would have to go beyond anti-capitalist rhetoric and pose the need for a workers’ alternative to the Raffarin government and to capitalism in a concrete way. It would have to fight to build the movement and prepare the working class to carry through decisive action to defeat the capitalists under a socialist programme of public ownership of the major companies and banks. It would argue for the introduction of a socialist plan of production, to lay the basis for a socialist society that would guarantee decent services and living standards for all. The existence of such a party or even steps towards such a party would increase the confidence of the working class to take further action.

Although it looks like the movement in France will recede during the summer it has been far from beaten. Raffarin wants to push the pensions reform through parliament before July 14 and in an attempt to divide the movement has postponed the education decentralisation plans until 2004, and made some other minor concessions. Chirac, in the meantime, has announced another wave of generalised attacks, with an overhaul of social security and, in particular, national health insurance, to be presented over the next few months. Different leaders of the Union de la Majorité Présidentielle (UMP), the party of the right-wing majority, are getting overexcited and want to open a second front against the public services. Plans to try a second time to open EdF and GdF to privatisation, and the introduction of strike-breaking measures – such as guaranteeing a minimum service during public service strikes – are all being debated. They might well be overstretching their powers and underestimating their opponent. Chirac likes to be compared to his great idol, General De Gaulle. He too underestimated the power of the working class until it was unleashed in 1968 and he found himself temporarily fleeing the country.

From Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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June 2003