France: Strike against Sarkozy goes into the next round

On the 20th November 700,000 people took to the streets all over France against right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy’s neo-liberal attacks .

In Paris alone, 70,000 joined the demonstration. This was part of a joint strike-day of the public service workers and the train drivers which paralyzed the country.

The workers of the French train company have been on strike since the 14th November against the abolition of the so-called ’Régime speciaux’. This ”reform” is in fact a raising of the retirement age and means workers will only get their full pension after they have paid contributions to the pension fund over a period of 40 years (even 41 years from 2012 onwards) instead of 37.5 years on average today. This would mean a cut in pensions of up to 25 percent for the workers. To justify this attack the right-wing government claims the workers at the public train, electricity and gas companies…. are privileged. The workers answer this by explaining how exhausting their work is. Philippe Roure, mechanic at the train depot in Seinte-Saint Denis describes his ’privileged’ work as follows: "I have worked nearly 30 years in this noise, ducked under the trains to maintain the axles. So, it’s out of question that they touch my pension."

“Tous ensemble”- All together on the 20th November

On the 20th  November the public service workers went on strike as well, to demand increased buying power, to protest against the reduction of jobs and against worse contracts for newly employed workers. One out of two schools was closed because of the strike. Hospital workers, employees in the tax offices and the customs, workers from the post and the telecom, the meteorological services, Air France and the French National Bank participated in the strike. Even a few workers from private industry took part.

Students were already part of the movement over the last weeks. At 43 universities a state of "business is disturbed" exists, meaning they are either occupied or the university authorities have closed them as a preventative measure. The students are protesting against the ’Pécresse Law’, which represents a step towards privatisation of the universities. What’s new is that since the 20th November even school students joined the protest. The two biggest organisations of school students, FIDL and UNL, called for a strike.

Also the newspapers couldn’t be printed because of strike action.

Fight for public opinion

The government stresses again and again that a majority of the population is against the strike of the railway workers. Of course a strike in the public transport sector, as in schools or the childcare sector… always means difficulties for the population. This is just more proof of how important the work of these groups is for society. The participation of many different groups of workers and youth on the 20th November and the big number of other protests taking place in France at the moment (for example the protest against the closure of courts…) shows how widespread the discontent is and therewith the potential for a unified movement. On the same time the government is losing support: Sarkozy has lost five percentage points in the polls since October.

Also during the successful movements of the public sector workers in 1995, and of youth and workers against the CPE last year, at the beginning, a majority of the population was against the strike. This only changed in the course of the protests. To gain the sympathy and support of a majority, the workers on strike and their unions first have to show they are organising a serious protest and that it would be worthwhile to support them. Second, they have to build a bridge to the demands of the other workers – two things that the union leadership are trying to avoid in the actual conflict. A survey, which was published on Monday, showed that 53 percent of the population support the demands and the strike of the public service unions. The joint strike and joint demonstrations on the 20th November could help win sympathy for the strike of the train drivers as well.

At the same time; the government is using the media to agitate against the strikers, calling them ”selfish” and saying they are taking the passengers as hostages…. On the 18th November the first demonstration against the strike took place, which was called by ultra-liberal groups like Liberté Cherie. The 8,000 participants therefore were no ordinary commuters, but better-off people from the wealthier neighbourhoods of Paris. Even the government distanced itself from this demonstration up to now, leading politicians of the governing party UMP announced already that if the strike goes on. such demonstrations would be a good idea.

"Unions outbid by their rank and file"

The mood amongst the workers on strike is determined and combative. “We won’t stop after we started so well and already lost a few days of wages. Even if we have to eat pasta,” said a bus driver from the Paris Transport Company. “We won’t sacrifice what our predecessors fought for”.

The daily assemblies of the striking railway workers on Monday were the best attended since the beginning of the strike, and all voted for a continuation of the strike.

But opinions on how the strike should continue differ. The newspaper Le Figaro wrote on its front page on 16th November : “Unions outbidden by their rank and file. The gap between the union leaderships and the rank and file widens.” And indeed, the union leadership did everything during the last days to negotiate with the government and to end the strike. On the day before the strike began, Bernhard Thibault, chairman of the union CGT, made a sudden offer to the government of negotiations between government, unions and representatives of the enterprises. Up until then the unions had correctly refused to negotiate in each enterprise separately, demanding a general agreement. The government was jubilant – an end of the strike seemed to be close at hand before it had even started! But they didn’t take the mood of the strikers into account, who nevertheless voted for an indefinite strike. A lot of trade unionists were angry that their leadership proposed negotiations before the strike had even started and pressure could mount.

This explains why one of the main slogans on the demonstration on the 20th was, “Pas de négotiations sans mobilisation [no negotiations without mobilisation]”.

Thibault, the CGT chairman, defended his offer to negotiate: ”If the government takes part in the negotiations is not a detail. The government is in a position to say if the solutions are adequate and if they can guarantee them financially.”

Thibault seems to have forgotten who is attacking the workers at the moment: the same government he proposes as a conciliator.

In reality those negotiations are a confession that the union tops don’t really try to block abolition of the Régimes speciaux, but only want to be involved in the process, while also having to react to the pressure of their rank and file. But they seem to have underestimated this pressure. Francois Chérèque, leader of the union CFDT, who had called for an end to the strike, had to leave the demonstration in Paris in a great hurry protected by his escorts after slogans came up like “ Chérèque makes common cause with the bosses” or “ Chérèque, no knife in our back!”

Arnaud Morvan, leader of the CFDT in the train company, had to withdraw his signature from a paper he had signed with the SNCF in relation to the further development of the talks because of the pressure by the rank and file members.

Already in 2003 the CFDT had the experience of thousands of members leaving the union after the leadership had accepted the government’s pension reform. But apparently they have not learned from this experience. The CGT reacts a bit more skilfully to the pressure by the rank and file members in saying that of course it would be the assemblies of the striking workers who would decide whether the strike goes on or not. But at the same time the CGT leadership takes part in the negotiations with the SNCF from the 21st November onwards. Meanwhile the government imposed its conditions: a spokesperson of the government would only take part if the unions show their goodwill and the situation in the transport would improve.

The last days showed, that the rank and file members can put the leadership of the unions under pressure. Nevertheless it’s not excluded that they will sign a sell-out during the next days. To prevent this, the train workers of Paris –Nord have voted unanimously on a resolution targeted at the union leadership: “We demand to be consulted before any decision regarding our future is taken and we want to be informed at every stage of the negotiations.”. Such resolutions have to be voted everywhere. At the same time it would be necessary that strike committees would be created which could organise the running of the strike and the contact between the different regions.

How to go on?

During the last weeks the union leaders gave the impression that their main concern is to end the strike and to prevent a fusion of the different movements. But the experience of the French labour movement shows that it is the joint fights which enabled them to push back the government. In 1995 it was a joint movement of the workers of the public service and the private industry which forced Juppé to retreat on an identical attack on the pensions and two years ago the students and workers prevented the introduction of the CPE in a joint struggle. During the last weeks the students called to unite the different protests. On the demonstration on the 20th they carried banners like “They privatise-we organise. Unite the protest”.

To built a joint movement and to prevent that the government can implement one attack after the other joint assemblies of the workers from all sectors on strike are necessary.

Politcal movement?

“We are not in an Anti-Sarkozy-movement with a political character” underlined Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the union Force Ouvrier and B. Thibault (CGT) “refuses the idea of a third, social round [after the second round in the presidential election]”

But the current attacks on the workers are political, so the answer has to be a politcal as well. It’s no accident that the train drivers have been attacked at first. Sarkozy tries to organise a defeat of one of the most combative parts of the French working class to be then able to implement the other attacks and neoliberal measures more easily.

The PS (Socialist Party), too, clarified once again that there is no alternative at all for the workers and youth. Francois Holland, chairman of the PS: ”If we would be in the government we would also have opened the field of the Régimes speciaux […] our target would have been to talk the unions into more responsibility”.

While the bosses and superrich thus have several parties which defend their interests the striking workers have none. A new workers party which could counter the propaganda of the bourgois parties and their media is urgently needed. Such a party could also play an important role in linking and building the protests against Sarkozy. The trotskyist LCR which received 4,1 per cent in the election in spring announced in August that a ”new, anticapitalist” party is necessary. In fact, such a party is more than necessary and the current movement provides the best conditions for the launching of a new party.

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November 2007