Movement already larger than in 2006 and the beginning of the general strike of 1995
According to the police, 1.1 million people took to the streets of France on 29 January. The unions put it at 2.5 million. Either way, it is already bigger than the biggest demonstration during the CPE struggle – the successful movement against anti-youth labour law – on 28 March 2006. Composed of many different sectors of the working class and youth, the contingents (tightly packed, because of the temperature) were massive in many cities. Around 200,000 gathered in Paris, 150,000 in Marseilles, 70,000 in Toulouse and 30,000 in Rouen. These figures are all higher than those of the first week of demonstrations during the 1995 public sector general strike over pensions.
In some cities, the demonstrations were lead by contingents from the big private sector industries. Among them was the car industry: Renault in Rouen and Le Havre, Peugeot in Mulhouse, Ford in Bordeaux etc. This comes as these companies are announcing huge profits, the slashing of hours, the sacking of temporary workers and even the closure of a whole plant at Ford-Blanquefort, near Bordeaux. The participation by this section of workers was bigger than usual. Facing the threat of new attacks from the bosses, Renault workers in Le Havre were chanting, “We are peaceful, but will not be much longer!”.
However, the expressions of anger are hindered by the lack of a clear explanation by the union leaders of the origins of the economic crisis and also by the attitude of the official left, who do not put forward any analysis, merely blaming a few ‘excesses’ of the legislation and the banks. While the anger against the bosses and the shareholders was palpable, it was unfortunately not given expression in concrete demands on wages, saving jobs etc. For example, the main argument of the CGT (the main trade union confederation) leadership at Renault has always been to advocate the production of a new car at Sandouville, near Le Havre – an argument that the bosses can counter with reference to falling sales.
Nevertheless, those attending the demonstrations had the attitude, “We don’t want to pay for the crisis of capitalism”. Many private sector workers came individually, along with many from the banks and supermarkets. A lot of slogans and placards were targeted against Sarkozy, friend of the rich and the fat cats. Many made their own individual placards against capitalism or against Sarkozy.
Huge mobilisation of the public sector
The massive size of the demonstrations meant that a lot of the contingents literally exploded. Banner followed banner, with groups of workers from one sector marching under the banner of another. This made it difficult to get a picture of the exact mobilisations from the main public services. It seems that the turnout was very good from EDF (electricity), the postal service and the health service. All of these combined general demands with opposition to particular threats of closure and attacks threatened by the government and the bosses, and also new plans for moves towards privatisation. A plan to go further in the privatisation of the hospitals is on the agenda and the anger in that sector is growing. In many cities there were joint contingents from different hospitals.
Social workers and social work students also mobilised against the “66 collective convention” that is aimed at “rationalising” social work using pro-market criteria, which will mean new attacks on social workers’ conditions.
In the cities where the school student movement was well organised during the last few months, the contingents were good and very dynamic. More than 500 school students in Rouen chanted, “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble, grève générale!” (“All together, all together, general strike!).
The perspectives for the further development of the movement are not clear yet. The universities are facing new attacks and the students will start mobilising on 2 February. The situation could still develop further in some private sector companies and in the health sector. The massive size of the 29 January demonstrations and the huge anger against the government show the potential for a real struggle with a fighting programme.
The unions are meeting nationally on 2 February and from each city demands are being made for a new day of action and for a real general strike. The example of the strike and blockade in Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies, is an indication of what is to come. The island has been blocked for two weeks now, against the high cost of living, low wages and the strategy of under-development pursued by the government and the local elite.
In the strike and the demonstrations, Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) has intervened and built for the strike in the sectors where we are active. Hundreds of our paper were sold. We participated in general assemblies, in which we put forward the demand for the national union leaderships to organise as soon as possible a new strike day also raising the need for local initiatives.
The developing crisis of capitalism will see new attacks against the working class and the population. It is important to put forward a real plan of action combining demands on wages and jobs, action, and the need for the nationalisation, under workers’ control, of the finance sector and companies that threaten job cuts and closures.