France: General strike against pension attacks sees huge workers’ protests

Sarkozy forced to mouth concessions but fight set to escalate

In an enthusiastic response to the call by the major French trade union organisations, a flood of workers went onto the streets of France on Tuesday, 7 September for a “day of massive strikes and demonstrations” in protest against the government’s major attack on the country’s pension system.

A total of two and a half million demonstrators, according to the CFDT union federation (two and three quarters according to the CGT) took to the streets in 220 protests across the whole of France. The union ‘Solidaires’ is even saying there were more than 3 million participants. Whatever is the exact figure, one thing is certain: the mobilisation has clearly far exceeded the previous one in June, and represents one of the biggest mobilisations of the French working class for years.

Even the government official channels have been forced to admit it. They gave a figure of 1.12 million compared with their estimate of 800,000 in June. “There was a very big number of workers who never usually participate in demonstrations,” commented Leila Messaoudi, member of Gauche Révolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI), who was on Tuesday’s demonstration in Rouen.

A British newspaper (the Independent) quoted a 53 middle manager in the car industry saying: “There is now a feeling that, under Sarkozy, things have gone much too far. People are sick of seeing the rich allowed to get away with everything while we are expected to give up the rights we have won over many years.”

For decades now, every mass movement in France has thrown up the spectre of another ‘‘68’. In May 1968, the biggest general strike in history posed sharply the question of whether capitalism would survive. While capitalism did survive, because there was no sizeable force able to show what concrete steps were needed to achieve that goal, 1968’s movement won huge genuine reforms for the French working class. But even that semi-revolutionary movement began with hesitations and confusion about what the alternative to De Gaulle’s government was. While this Autumn’s movement in France has many differences with 1968, it is gathering momentum that could carry it further.

The demonstration in Paris was so big that it had to be divided into two separate marches. According to the CGT, it was around 270,000 strong – more than double the size of June’s demonstration in the capital)

Anger at injustice

The pension ‘reform’ is the cornerstone of the new wave of cutbacks launched by the increasingly unpopular right-wing Sarkozy government. It involves an increase of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. The age for full pension entitlements would be increased from 65 to 67 and the period of contributions by one year from 40.5 to 41.5 years. The level of the contributions of the public-sector workers would come into line with those in the private sector – already undermined by previous reform measures.

But the rejection of this ‘reform’ is only part of the wider reasons which brought people massively onto the streets. A French political commentator was quoted in the English Guardian as saying, “Never in the history of opinion polls have French people been so convinced of social injustice”.

Most workers are aggrieved that while the present pension system is supposedly an “unaffordable luxury”, the money for it exists, but is increasingly hijacked by a minority of rich parasites, symbolised by the French billionaire, Liliane Bettencourt. (She has been involved in a massive finance and corruption scandal, accused of collusion with, among others, Eric Woerth, the labour minister in charge of the pension dossier!). One banner on the Paris march read: “Requisition Bettencourt’s €22 billion for our pensions!”.

Work stoppages were also at a higher level. This is particularly clear in the public sector. In education, for instance, the level of strikers reached 60% in primary schools and 55% in secondary schools compared with 31% and 10% respectively in June, according to union figures. Significant disruption occurred in the transport system with about a 52% strike rate, according to the CGT – much higher than in June. Planes, metros, suburban and intercity trains came to a halt. Strike action also took place in the private sector, in the car and metal industries, the banks, the energy companies.

Sarkozy’s retreat

Immediately following this day of action, Sarkozy announced some concessions – broadening the categories of workers who will be “exceptions”, able to keep their retirement age at 60. This includes workers who started work before the age of 18, as well as workers who can prove 10% incapacity because of physically demanding jobs (previously it was 20%).

These concessions were obviously calculated well in advance by the government in anticipation of having to come up with something in the face of mass mobilisations against the reform this month. It was an attempt made under pressure of the mass turnout to show that the government is supposedly ‘open to negotiate’ and that Sarkozy has understood the preoccupations of protesters.

But this will hardly prevent the government facing a barrage of resistance; it can inflame it. A clear majority of French people oppose the essence of this reform, with 87% opposition among youth between 18-24 years old, 82% among white-collar workers, and 79% among manual workers, according to a recent poll published in the newspaper, ‘Le Monde’ (04/09/2010).

The racist campaign of Sarkozy, especially against the Roma, launched during the summer, was aimed at cutting across the growing social resistance; it has patently failed. Working people in France are definitely more preoccupied by their jobs, their pensions and their public services than by this artificially created war against “insecurity” designed to divert their anger towards immigrants.

This Tuesday’s mobilisation has shown the potential for sending this reform where it belongs: into the rubbish bins of history. But the huge anger among workers and youth, and the will to resist the attacks of Sarkozy and the capitalists, are still combined with a certain scepticism when it comes to the outcome of such a battle and the way to organise for victory. This is reflected in the opinion polls. A majority express their opposition to the pension reform, but on the other hand, most do not seriously think that the mobilisations can have enough of an impact to defeat it. This is a direct consequence of the absence of a strategic view from the trade union leadership on how to defeat this reform and all other cuts and attacks concocted by this government.

Lack of confidence

Regrettably, national trade union leaders do not show the same determination to defeat the reform as the capitalist politicians do to impose it. The trade union top officials mainly see workers’ mobilisation as opening the way for them to manoeuvre in the framework of negotiations with the government to obtain concessions, not as potential for building a serious mass opposition to it. Consequently, Sarkozy sees them not as serious challengers, but more as driving belts in the workers’ camp that, hopefully for them, will be guide the movement into safe channels.

Demonstration in Marseille

All public declarations from national union leaders are going in that direction. They are begging for more ‘social dialogue’ with the government and for sufficient concessions to be presented to their members as a ‘victory’ with the purpose of calming down the movement. The ’Financial Times’ commented this week: “Only a radical escalation – such as an open-ended strike – is likely to force the government to reconsider the main elements of the reform”. They say it to underline how determined the government is to pursue the reform; workers can see it as meaning that stronger action must be organised!

An endless repetition of “days of action”, if they are not part of a well-coordinated plan to escalate the mobilisation, will exhaust and discourage the initial enthusiasm.

For an open-ended, renewable general strike!

After being on the mass Paris demonstration, Alex Rouillard of Gauche Revolutionnaire commented gave his views. “Tuesday’s demonstration had an atmosphere of being a beginning, not a funeral…But, if France’s workers are clearly not ready to swallow the attacks silently, they are not ready to go blindly into a brick wall either. Workers and youth, while being ready to strike and demonstrate, have no clear alternative to Sarkozy in their hands.

“The Socialist Party (PS) is simply expanding its proposals for a so-called ‘fair and concerted’ reform of the pensions. And Sarkozy will not retreat easily; that would put into question all the austerity policies in Europe… We will need to go towards an open-ended general strike to beat them”.

Following the success of Tuesday’s mobilisation, six of the eight French trade union federations (CGT, CFDT, CFE-CGC, CFTC, UNSA, FSU) decided on Wednesday afternoon to go for another “day of strikes and demonstrations” on Thursday, 23rd September. The period before that must be seized by all trade union and political militants to inform, to structure and to prepare the movement.

Regular general assemblies need to be organised in the workplaces, schools and universities, in order to democratically coordinate the struggle, and to let the rank-and-file workers and trade union activists have their say and exert real control over the strategy and organisation of the movement.

In order to win this battle, the working class will need a more offensive approach, rather than the empirical attitude that has prevailed so far. A proper general strike will be necessary to force the government to retreat. This must be seriously prepared and publicised, and ’renewable’ until satisfaction is obtained – the full withdrawal of the pension reform as a minimum objective.

This would renew the confidence of French workers and youth. They would begin to feel capable of winning not only this battle, but many others that will follow unless the Sarkozy government is brought down. The idea of replacing it with a democratic government of workers, youth and poor will gain ground and the way will be opened for achieving lasting socialist change.

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September 2010