France: January’s general strike first but not last response to Sarkozy

New Anti-capitalist Party can grow fast with clear socialist policies

In 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president, he declared that he wanted to finish with the legacy of May 1968 in France. Last spring, with the introduction of new labour laws against the right to strike in public transport and primary schools, he also said, “Now in France, when there are strikes, nobody can see it”.

But on 29 January this year, 2.5 million striking workers and young people demonstrated on the streets. A lot of placards read: ‘Now, do you see the strike?!’ A recent survey in Le Figaro magazine confirmed a growing defiance against Sarkozy, with 37% supporting his policies. Last September, this was 50%.

In 2008, unemployment rose to 11%, with 45,000 job losses in December. As in all of Europe, waves of sackings are being announced. At the same time, Total is publishing record profits of €13.9 billion. Workers have seen quickly that behind Sarkozy’s frenzied actions, especially when he was president of the European Union, nothing has been done in the interests of the population, only for the bosses. On 29 January, 69 % of the population supported the strike.

Two days after the announcement of state help worth €3 billion to support the automobile industry (Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen), Christian Streiff, PSA chief executive officer, announced 11,000 job losses, 6-7,000 of which are in France. The crisis is becoming more concrete now in France. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, French GDP fell 1.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008. It is set to fall further this year.

Besides some of the smallest factories, subcontractors for the big companies are closing, sacking hundreds upon hundreds of workers. The national institute of statistics (INSEE) expects 285,000 more unemployed workers in 2009. And that is a low estimate.

Automobile workers have been mobilised from the end of last year. But since the Christmas holidays, bosses have been implementing massive layoffs, making it quite difficult to mobilise industrial battles which link those in work with those laid off. Nevertheless, in some places, like Renault Sandouville in Le Havre or Peugeot Sochaux and Mulhouse, there is still mobilisation going on and more actions are being organised following Sarkozy’s so-called rescue plan.

For the moment, after the huge strike day in January, national education is the most mobilised sector, following the massive schools’ strike on 20 November. There has been a whole series of strikes and days of action in significant parts of this sector (school student demos, parents’ mobilisations against class closures, teachers’ strike days against cuts in the 2009-10 budget).

On 29 January, workers in national education responded massively. And now there are plans for further cuts in high-school budgets, reform in technical education, reform of the university teachers’ and researchers’ statutes, as well as changes in teacher training. The mobilisation is growing. More than 35 universities have been hit by an unlimited lecturers’ strike since 2 February. In the public health sector, a new law is going through parliament (the Bachelot law), which aims to extend privatisation and the market into the public hospital system. Step by step, a mobilisation is beginning to develop from the Parisian hospitals.

General Strike in the French Carribean

Thousands of kilometres from Paris, in the French ‘department’ of Guadeloupe in the Carribean, a general strike against high prices and the degradation of living standards has been going on since 20 January. It is being organised by a large committee of unions, associations and local left parties, known in Creole as the Kolektif Kont Pwofitasyon (Collective Against Exploitation). The movement has spread to Martinique.

The Caribbean islands are the poorest of all French administrative regions. Food and oil prices are two to three times more expensive than in metropolitan France and 27% of the population is officially unemployed. Nearly 40% of the inhabitants work in the public sector (schools,hospitals, local administration) which has been under attack for several years, suffering heavy budget cuts. (Source: INSEE) Although these islands are a long way away from France, many workers support the general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique. According to an Ifop poll for the Sud-Ouest newspaper, 63% of people in France think that a similar type of movement could develop soon in the whole of France!

In that context, a new ‘all together’ (public and private sector) strike day could be a decisive step towards a general strike in France. The trade union leaders of the five confederations (CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC and CFTC), and of the smaller federations (Solidaires, FSU and UNSA) are under pressure to propose a new day of action. But they also know that the movement could very quickly become uncontrollable. On the Thursday after the 29 January strike, Sarkozy appeared on the main TV channels. The trade union leaderships declared that they would not announce another day of action before they had listened to his ‘social proposals’. Despite the massive anger, announcements of sackings, closures and cuts in public budgets, the union leaderships waited until 9 February before calling a further day of action for 19 March. At the time of going to print, it is not yet clear whether this means a day of strikes. Nonetheless, it will be an enormous mobilisation, as big as in January or bigger.

Trade union leaders acting as a brake is not new in France. In fact, since the generalised strike in 1995 against Alain Juppé’s attacks on pensions, the union leaderships have done everything to avoid a general strike. In 2003, when a number of sectors were on strike for several weeks, the union leaders succeeded in not calling for one day of general strike.

However, the context today of a deeper economic crisis and the growth of mass unemployment, combined with sharper attacks on living standards, is producing every day a more explosive social situation. Inside the unions, in some places, an internal opposition is developing, with local appeals to strike, committees to unify the different sectors, and calls for a new day of strikes to be held very soon. Local CGT union branches in Valenciennes and Lille, in the north, are attempting to put pressure on the national leadership and, at the same time, are mobilising in the workplaces.

Anger against Sarkozy and the bosses is growing. What is new is that the need for a political change is being discussed more and more. Already, this situation has had an effect on left political parties and organisations. Since the presidential election in 2007 there has been a developing radicalisation among workers and youth. Olivier Besancenot (spokesperson of the LCR – Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) embodies this anger and will to change. He is seen as the ‘best opponent to Sarkozy’ in recent surveys. On 13 February, his popularity had grown by 6 points to 53%, with Ségolène Royal (leader of the social democratic Parti Socialiste) behind him on 46%.

A year and half ago, the LCR decided to begin a process to create a new party, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), to address this new audience. Inside the ‘left of the left’, this announcement had an effect. In the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who led the anti-EU treaty current), split in December to create the Parti de la Gauche (Left Party) with the support of Oscar Lafontaine from Die Linke in Germany. His new formation is not the result of debates or polarisation inside the former workers’ parties. Melenchon is surfing on the radicalisation among workers and youth and is trying to make space for himself by positioning his party between the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) and the NPA.

The huge vacuum opened up within the working class by the rightward move of the PCF and the PS is a key issue, especially in the political battle against Sarkozy. More and more workers and fighting trade unionists are searching for a political alternative, a perspective of struggle. They are listening to Besancenot, a worker like them, who is the only one to put forward an anti-capitalist programme and the need to struggle. Therefore, the only new party being discussed in the workplaces is the NPA.

On 9 February, the NPA was founded with more than 630 delegates representing 9,123 members. In one week, 1,000 new members joined. Concretely, the newborn NPA is already facing a testing period. There is a clear potential for the NPA to attract new layers of workers and youth. A real fighting workers’ party would be decisive against Sarkozy’s policy and the capitalists. In order to become such a party, the NPA has to support and organise workers.

The NPA should intervene in all the workplaces and the struggles proposing a clear transitional programme of demands to fight against sackings, cuts in the public sector, etc, linked with the perspective for socialism. That is what Gauche Révolutionnaire, in the party since its launch and now a current inside the NPA, stands for.

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February 2009