France: Workers and youth resist Sarkozy’s attacks

Public-sector employees, teachers and fishing industry workers take industrial action

Forty years after the May 1968 ’month of revolution’ in France, over 300,000 people demonstrated through Paris and in more than 100 cities and towns on 22 May, while public sector workers struck in a one-day walkout over attacks on their pension rights, according to press reports. Fishermen also blocked ports in a protest over fuel costs. Teachers are protesting on 23 May.

School students have been leading the fight against education cuts in France. On 15 May, they were joined by around 300,000 education and public-sector workers on demonstrations across the country. Manny Thain looks at the causes of the 2008 upsurge in class struggle.

Workers and youth resist Sarkozy’s attacks

There is widespread anger at the attacks planned by the right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon. They aim to ’streamline’ the civil service (with large-scale job cuts), want 11,200 job losses in education (the long-term aim is 80,000), are undermining state pension provision, and introducing higher healthcare costs among other measures.

Le Monde newspaper reported that 35,000 education workers, parents and students protested in Paris on 18 May. This is a hard-line government, however, with Education Minister, Xavier Darcos, ruling out any changes "whatever the size of the demos".

The school student protests are also against changes to the baccalaureate system, which will mean that school leavers will have lower qualifications and so worse jobs on less pay. And the Sports Minister, Bernard Laporte, wants to impose 100 hours of unpaid ’civic service’ work on those aged 18-25. Once again, the government is targeting youth as a stepping stone to attacks on the wider working class.

Sarkozy and Fillon want to bring France into line with the neo-liberal world of privatisation and deregulation. To do that, they have to break the power of the working class. So, part and parcel of this offensive is targeting trade union rights.

Sarkozy and Fillon want to impose a ’minimum service provision’ in education, forcing schools to open even during a strike. Education workers are also to be made to give 48 hours notice of strike action. If this is implemented, it would be only a matter of time before it is imposed on other sectors.

French workers are renowned for taking sudden strike action: a powerful weapon in the defence of jobs, wages and working conditions. The lengthy and cumbersome balloting procedure, which delays and even stops action in Britain, for example, is unknown in France.


The main union federations are meeting this week to discuss their strategy. Up to now, however, they have dragged their feet, bringing out one sector followed by another. Under mass pressure, the 15 May strike brought education workers together with others, such as health workers and civil servants.

Another public-sector ’day of action and demonstrations’ has been called for 22 May, against the plan to raise the eligibility for a full pension from 40 years’ contributions to 41 years. For many, that means a 24-hour strike. The rail workers’ unions have called their members out on that day.

Also, there have been many individual factory strikes against job cuts, some of which have been bitter battles. And, last weekend and into this week, ports around France ground to a standstill as fishermen struck and blockaded ports in protest at the rising price of fuel.

This year, therefore, has shown clearly that the mood for militant action exists. And this is just a year after Sarkozy became president, promising a bright future, while vowing to eradicate the revolutionary legacy of May 1968, and ’reform’ (cut back) the state sector. The thin veneer of hope that he might deliver positive change has worn away and his party was hammered in local elections a month ago.

The government’s intentions are clear. So, the strategy for the workers’ movement has to be to build a massive, united movement. Initially, that would require a 24-hour strike of all workers, public and private sector, all of whom are affected by attacks on pensions, public services and union rights. will carry more reports and analysis of the current strike wave

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May 2008