France: “Paris 2012 is seven years away, our wages matter today”

One million people took to the streets demanding better wages and battling against a longer working week

Thursday, 10 March, was the third day national day of strikes and demonstrations in France this year. The day started with massive demonstrations in the South of France, in Toulouse and in Marseille, where 100,000 people hit the streets in the biggest demonstration of the day. The North closed ranks with demonstrations in Paris, Lille and Strasbourg.

Everywhere the same picture appeared. Workers in private enterprises joined their colleagues of the public sector around three main demands: against the abolition of the 35 hour working week, in defence of the public services and against the erosion of wages.

Unlike the rest of Europe these strikes and actions would not have been reported in Britain at all if they had not coincided with the visit of the International Olympic Committee who are touring Paris as one of the candidate cities for organising the 2012 Olympics. Parts of the French media accused the trade unions of jeopardizing the Parisian bid. Activists of Force Ouvrière, one of the trade union federations, carried placards "Paris 2012 is seven years away, our wages matter today"

Biggest mobilisation

Yesterday’s mobilisation was the most important since the spring of 2003 and the big battles against the pension reform of the right wing Raffarin government. According to the trade unions over 1 million people participated in 150 demonstrations, twice as many as on the previous national day of action on Saturday 5 February, and this time the protests took place on a weekday. The contingents brought together demonstrators who had been out earlier in the week to defend their own specific demands. Big contingents of school students joined the protest or stood along the side of the road supporting the demonstrations. Two days earlier more than 160,000 school students struck against the so-called "reform" of education. Scientific researchers, of whom 5,000 marched the day before in Paris, joined together with workers in industry, postmen and teachers. Veterans of many demonstrations and class struggles joined together with young workers and school students on their first demonstration.

The working class unites

Anne, a public service worker for 14 years in Strasbourg with a monthly wage of 1,400 euro including bonuses, explained, "I am here to defend the 35 hour week, the right to work and the public services. I am here to say no to the closure of post offices and schools. Normally it is exceptional that I join a strike but taking account of what is at stake I am ready to join the strike for two or three weeks. I am very fortunate not to have children and that I earn more than the minimum wage, but I know a lot of people who are not able to find even a part time job. Those who have work are being asked to work longer hours for the same wage. The government should stop treating us like idiots. All the governments, not only the Raffarin government but all the ones we have had in the last 30 years".

There is great anger at the attempts of the bosses to introduce longer working hours. But many workers have not forgotten the often bitter real experience of the introduction of the legal 35-hour week by the last Gauche Plurielle government ("Plural Left") led by the Socialist Party, Communist Party and Greens. In many cases the 35-hour week law was used by bosses to introduce a savage flexibility in the private sector. At Renault for example they produced 6,000 cars in a five-day working week before the introduction of the 35-hour week, now they produce the same amount in four days and with the same number of workers. The 35-hour week has affected blue and white-collar workers alike. Didier, technician at Renault in Guyancourt: "White collar workers are sick of ending the working day at 11 o’clock in the evening only to see that there is no recruitment of new workers. Last year Renault made 3.5 billion euro in profits after paying taxes, and management offered us a real wage raise of 1.53% in 2005."

"Only a mass movement can change things"

While the Raffarin government has pursued a relentless offensive against the living standards and working conditions of the workers and youth, the leading companies have made record profits. While the number of workers and unemployed who find it difficult to make ends meet is growing, the political elite hit the headlines with financial scandals. Official unemployment reached 10% last month, the highest figure since February 2000. The only ‘offer’ the French government is prepared to make is a promise to invest 1.4 billion euros in an attempt to extend the low wage sector in the economy combined with initiatives to make hiring and firing easier. Jean Luc, a worker in a print factory near Lille: "We are worried for the future of our children. The labour law is being trampled upon. Soon they will be able to lay off 30 workers at once without notice. The metal and textile industry are finished. New jobs are at the minimum wage and then they still say it is to expensive…I would like to see that this evening those who are apathetic; those people who are alone at home, insecure at turned inwards see us on their television screens. It is only a mass movement that can change things. If we allow ourselves to go to sleep, we submit".

Gauche Révolutionnaire

Gauche Révolutionnaire, the CWI in France, made an excellent contribution to the different demonstrations and protests. Although our forces our small the amount of work we carried out testifies to the growth of our organisation in France. We were present in six cities including Paris, Lille, Rouen and Marseille. Our leaflet called for the building of general assemblies in all workplaces to organise the next phase of the struggle. We called for the immediate preparation towards a public and private sector 24-hour general strike. Our political contribution was well received including our insistence on the necessity to create a fighting party of the working class, capable of organising and uniting the experience and struggle of workers, unemployed and youth. A party that could defend a real alternative to this system that only pays off for the bosses. Such a party would fight for a society in which the main, determining sectors of the economy be placed under workers control and management, a socialist society to satisfy the needs of all, instead of a small minority.

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March 2005