"Here comes the confrontation that could define his presidency"
"Remember this date: October 18, 2007. On this day, Nicolas Sarkozy’s five year term will really begin", the conservative newspaper Le Figaro wrote in an editorial.
Le Figaro is both wrong and right. On Thursday 18 October the French president Sarkozy did face the first national strike of his five month presidency. It is more likely though that these are the opening skirmishes in a longer battle to defeat not only the current plans but the wholesale introduction of neo-liberal measures attacking the whole of the working class.
The issue around which the strikes centred was the so-called "special privileges" of certain public sector workers (notably at the state railway SNCF, the Paris underground workers and the employees of electricity and gas suppliers EDF and GDF) for whom the retirement age is 50 or 55. As part of the right-wing’s strategy to divide the working class, pitting public-sector workers against other public-sector workers and private-sector workers, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy has deliberately sought to present these 500,000 employees as privileged and "undeserving". They are being blamed by Sarkozy for the deficit in the pension funds and all the other things that are wrong with the French economy. This, by the way, while the first act of the Sarkozy government was to vote €1.3 billion in tax cuts for the rich.
What most media, in France and internationally, fail to mention is that the pension arrangements for the train-drivers and train attendants are a lot worse than for their colleagues in the private sector. Workers at the national rail company pay on average more social contributions (40%, against 28% in the private sector) and get a proportionally lower pension in relation to their last received wage than in the private sector (67%, against on average 84% in the private sector).
Not that this should be the main argument to defend public-sector pensions, but even if these workers only contribute to the pension fund for 34 years while private-sector workers contribute for 40 years, the former still pay more.
Workers face a situation, because of repeated measures to undermine the basic wages, where they are dependent on bonuses (for overtime, weekend-work, or hazardous work) to make up a living wage. According to a recent study such bonuses make up 23% of the wages.
The mobilisation for this strike confirms that workers have understood this is not only about defending the pensions of 500,000 public-sector workers. All commentators had to agree that the strike was a great success. It was the biggest transport strike since 1995. Even Sarkozy must have thought back to that year when four weeks of strikes defeated the then Chirac-Juppé government that wanted to introduce similar reforms.
According to the trade union federation CGT, and despite the almost complete standstill of public transport, 300,000 people took part in demonstrations across the country. The French government tried to overshadow the news of the strikes by announcing the same day that Nicolas Sarkozy’s marriage had ended in divorce from his estranged wife Cécilia. As the news spread on the demonstrations, workers in the seaport town of Le Havre shouted "Cécilia, we are like you! We are fed up with Nicolas!"
This strike represents a first step in a longer struggle to defeat Sarkozy’s plans to introduce strike breaking measures such as the ’minimum service in public transport’ law (to become law on 1 January 2008), the announced reduction of 22,843 public service jobs, the first steps towards privatisation of health care and the proposal to expel 25,000 ’illegal’ immigrants.
The trade union movement and politically active workers have to prepare a plan of action to defeat neo-liberalism. They will need to break the divide and rule strategy of the French ruling class by outlining a socialist alternative and a strategy to advance the struggle.
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