France: French government’s new war on the workers

More privatisations, tax cuts for the rich and attacks on workers’ rights

On 29 May, the French establishment suffered a new electoral defeat. The victory of the ‘No’ vote in the referendum on the European Union (EU) ‘constitution’ was a big defeat for Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was subsequently replaced as prime minister by Dominique de Villepin. But an electoral defeat is not a decisive defeat if it does not come on the ground of the struggles. The reshuffled government launched a big series of new attacks.

Not only by continuing with privatisation. The next objective is to destroy the labour contract. The CNE (contrat nouvelle embauche – new work contract) has been decided without it going for discussion in the National Assembly. It will allow small enterprises of less than 20 employees to fire any worker on this type of contract within two days without explanation. This is only a first step towards it applying to larger enterprises. This direct attack against the old collective conventions and the CDI (undetermined time contract) shows clearly where the government wants to go.

At the same time, a new announcement of further privatisation, along with tax cuts for the rich, dominated September. It is in the conflict over the SNCM (Société Nationale Corse-Méditérannée) that this was the most visible. During the month-long negotiations over opening up the share capital of SNCM, the CGT trade union federation called for a strike. The government then suddenly announced that it would go for 100% privatisation. The sailor-workers automatically reacted by going on all-out strike, mainly under the leadership of the CGT (the main union in SNCM), but with the other unions also – for example, the STC (Corsican Workers’ Union) which has links with Corsican nationalists.

Fearing a lack of combativity from the union, some workers took over the Paoli ferry, and nationalist pressure transformed this into a demonstration over what is Corsican should go to Corsica. The government did not hesitate. It launched the GIGN (anti-terrorist security force) to take back the boat and arrest the workers. At that moment, the strategy of the government was absolutely clear: it will go to the end in search of a defeat of the SNCM workers. At the same moment, a strike started in the port of Marseille against privatisation, which was followed a few days later by the national day of strikes on 4 October.

That meant that all the conditions for a united struggle of two bastions of the working class in Marseille were in place. The demo on 4 October was huge – at least 70,000 strong. RTM (public transport) struck, with only 3% of the buses running and no tube service at all. The RTM strike continued the following day – and is still on, over the question of privatising the new tramway line.

Some strikes have also started in other companies about wages. But at no moment did the union leaders, and especially local and national CGT leaders, argue and prepare united action. They very quickly changed the demand of the SNCM strike to say that "the state should keep the majority of the shares" (51%), which is de facto privatisation. The government maintained its pressure by saying that if the strike went on, SNCM would be closed down. On 13 October, the CGT organised a secret ballot on the issue, in order to stop the strike. Workers were asked to vote Yes or No: ‘Yes, and the company is safe’; or ‘No, and the company will close down’. Of course, by 519 votes to 73, yes won. It was a bitter defeat for a bastion of the working class, and followed the end of the port workers’ strike (without any gain) a few days before.

This was a clear betrayal by the union leaders, and there was also a total absence of initiatives from the left. The same day that the anti-terrorist police stormed the Paoli ferry, CGT leader, Bernard Thibault, accepted the offer of talks with the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. On 4 October, the joint appeal from all the unions involved only asked the government for "open negotiations", without putting forward any clear demands. On 9 October, Thibault issued a letter (after a meeting with CGT-SNCM leaders) which did not even refer to the percentage of shares the state should hold in SNCM. It was a clear green light for the government that the CGT would not do anything concretely to support the struggle of SNCM workers. The government has declared war on the workers, and is not hesitating to go very far in its attacks. It is doing so because of the needs of French capitalism, but also because it knows it has nothing to fear from the union leaders.

The far-left could have played a role – for years, now – but it seems that it still does not understand the real situation. Following on from the European ‘No’ campaign, Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire (LCR) has developed very close relations with the Communist Party. They organised a ‘support’ meeting for the SNCM together on 3 October, but without collecting money and without dealing with the strategy that should be used for the struggles today. Even though the right-wing mayor of Marseille is preparing a substitute public transport service to weaken the RTM strike, the last meeting of the leadership of the LCR and the CP only dealt with "the necessity to examine possibilities of joint initiatives to fight neo-liberal policies". Lutte Ouvrière, while more critical of the CP and the union leaders, hardly proposes anything in terms of strategy for the struggle and, of course, never deals with the necessity of a new workers’ party.

We are reaching a turning point. It is really possible that all the strikes that are going on could be defeated. (Or, like in Nancy, where after 17 days of strikes for a 8% rise in pay, bus drivers won only 1.7%. The right-wing parties have used that dispute to ask for a law limiting the right to strike in public transport.) Villepin is a mix of Thatcher and Blair, which means a government ready to directly attack the workers.

At the same time, there exists huge but passive anger against the establishment. The possibility of a wave of new attacks from the bosses and the government against a working class that is too demoralised to respond is not excluded. In the next period, raising that dangerous possibility, and the means to avoid it – a united and strong day of demonstrations or strikes as a first step toward a generalised struggle – will be crucial.

This article will appear in the November issue of Socialism Today,

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October 2005