France: Trade unions call day of national action and strikes

Helicopter-borne French commandos storm anti-privatisation protest

A united front of French trade union confederations are preparing for a national day of action and strikes on Tuesday 4 October. This will be the third day of national action this year, comes at a time of growing concerns over wages, job security and privatisations.

The unions denounce a rush of neo-liberal reforms introduced by the French government, under the guidance of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Minister without portfolio, Nicolas Sarkozy. They have, for example, introduced new two year contracts for people working in firms with fewer than 20 employees. This is done to undermine the rights of workers and make dismissals easier. At the same time, there is much talk about tightening controls on welfare benefits, accelerating the privatisation of Gaz de France and Electricité de France and selling three motorway toll companies to the private sector.

For Dominique de Villepin, the new French Prime Minister who took over from his beleaguered party colleague Raffarin, when he tripped over the No vote in the referendum over the European Constitution, this strike is his first big test after four months in office. He spent his first month making speeches in which he defended the ‘French social model’. Nicolas Sarkozy, boss of the governing party, UMP, and Minister without portfolio, is a staunch neo-liberal. He is preparing his challenge to become the next French president with fierce attacks on workers rights, benefits and public sector employment. This ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ act is now falling apart, as the trade unions step in to defend the rights of their members.

Sailors protest over privatisation plans

On Tuesday 26 September, French army ‘elite’ forces stormed a Corsican ferry at the centre of an anti-privatisation protest by French sailors. The sailors were protesting against plans by the French government to sell a majority stake in the ferry company SNCM to a French investment company, Butler Capital Partners (BCP). The investment company declared that it would re-organise the shipping line, which carried 1.25 million passengers a year between Marseille and Corsica, and may sack up to 400 of the 2,400 strong workforce.

In protests over the jobs cuts plans, about 30 sailors, members of the CGT and STC trade unions, took control of one of the company’s boats and left the port of Marseille on Tuesday. However, a 10-strong French army intervention force abseiled from Puma helicopters and took control of the ship. The sailors were handcuffed, locked in the ships cabins or forced to kneel on deck, and arrested for hijacking, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

The dramatic display of force by the French state did not impress the workers in the ports of Marseille and Bastia. In Bastia, riots broke out, and the police rushed in with 200 riot police. A battle with over a 1,000 workers took place over four hours on Tuesday night. The CGT called a 24-hour strike in Marseille, which left France’s largest port completely paralysed. The workers then voted to extend the strike, leaving 28 large carriers stranded, and blocking access to a major petrochemicals complex and the key oil port of Fos-sur-Mer

Demonstrations and strikes on 4 October

The trade unions have called demonstrations in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Strassbourg, Bordeaux and Montpellier, for Tuesday 4 October. These demonstrations will attract thousands of people, and will be accompanied with strikes in the public sector and some private sector companies. Members of Gauche révolutionnaire (CWI in France) will take part in these protest actions.

More reports will follow next week.

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September 2005