France: Millions take to the streets

Tuesday March 28’s "day of action" saw new mass protests and strikes throughout France against the government.

At this time (Early afternoon Tuesday 28th March) it is clear that these protests have been much bigger than the 1.5 million who demonstrated throughout France on Saturday March 18, a largely non-working day.

In Marseilles alone it is reported that between 200,000 and 250,000 were on the streets compared with 130,000 on March 18. Thibault, secretary of the CGT trade union, said that 3 million were marching in demonstrations. Protests that Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right National Front, denounced as "totally illegal". The right wing paper, Le Figaro, said that the national mobilisation left prime minister Villepin "isolated".

For over five weeks now France has seen a mounting series of protests against Villepin’s CPE. The CPE, the "First Job Contract", allows workers under 26 to be sacked without reason or warning during their first 24 months with any employer. While the first mobilisations started mainly amongst university students they have rapidly spread to school students and now both manual and white collar workers. March 28 was the fifth national day of protests.

School students, particularly those from the working class, rightly view this law as legalising their exploitation and lack of any secure future, turning them into the "Kleenex generation", used and then thrown away. Millions of workers have seen the CPE as the second stage of the government’s step-by-step plan to give more power to employers to intimidate and threaten workers. Last year the government passed the CNE that allowed for the sacking of any worker during their first 24 months working in a company with less than 20 employees.

Polls have showed a continuing rejection of the policies of the unpopular Villepin government; a rejection that Sarkozy, his rival within the government, is trying to exploit for his own presidential ambitions. Both President Chirac and Villepin are so far hanging tough, but it cannot be ruled out they may be forced to make some concessions now, only to come back for more later.

However the trade union leaders have repeatedly hesitated from calling for serious action against the government and, despite occasional verbal threats, have not called for a general strike. This is because they do not want to challenge the government.

This long standing policy by the trade union leaders means that they take no initiatives themselves. Nearly all the demands for action are coming from below, from the rank and file.

One result of the union leaders’ passivity is that they are offering no alternative to many of the most oppressed youth. A tragic warning of what this can produce were the attacks on the March 23 student demos by small gangs of youth trying to steal mobile phones, money etc. from the protestors. But instead of having a policy that could both offer these youth a future to fight for while also protecting the demonstrations from criminal elements, the leaders of the main trade union, the CGT, simply agreed that the police should surround the demos while their own stewards try to keep political slogans out of the protests.

As the union leaders do not want a confrontation with the government they are trying to ride out the movement by calling one protest a week. But it is far from certain that they will be able to succeed in this.

There are more and more discussions amongst workers about the need for a general strike to try to turn the tide against the series of attacks they have suffered. While currently public sector workers feel more confident to strike on the days of protest there is also anger amongst the private sector as well. If private sector workers saw that there was the chance of a generalised struggle that would not leave them isolated in their individual companies then they too would join in. While a national student meeting has called for blockades of railway stations and motorways on March 30 and a general strike on April 4, a more generalised strategy is needed. However it cannot be ruled out that the French tradition of spontaneous strikes will be seen again with workers deciding to continue striking.

For years the union leaders have repeatedly shown that they are not prepared to struggle to change society. Similarly the leaders of the so-called left, the Socialist and Communist parties, have carried out pro-capitalist policies whenever they have been in government; this being the reason for the heavy defeat they both suffered in the 2002 elections.

The past weeks in France have again demonstrated the willingness of large sections of the population to fight, not just complain about, the neo-liberal agenda. Today it looks likely that the Socialist Party could win next year’s elections, but as has been seen in the 25 years since Mitterrand became the first "Socialist" president in 1981, this will not lead to a fundamental change. What is needed is a new political force, a new workers’ party, which can combine this resistance with a genuinely socialist struggle to change society. Already in 2002 over 10% voted for parties calling themselves "Trotskyists" and the past few weeks have confirmed again the huge potential that exists in France for a new workers’ party, a potential that will continue to grow as a result of both these struggles and the disappointment that a new Socialist Party government will inevitably bring.

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