France: General strike on 12 October

New stage in the fight against Sarkozy’s policies

Since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, in France as throughout Europe, the government has had only one aim: to make young people and workers pay for the crisis in order to maintain the bosses’ profits.

Thus Sarkozy and his government alternate between laws against the continuation of the welfare state and racist speeches and actions. From the destruction of education (with 100,000 jobs in schools cut between 2007 and 2012) through the privatisation of the Health Service to mass redundancies, we are spared nothing.

In 2009 there was a big increase in isolated struggles against redundancies, for better wages or even for higher redundancy pay when workplaces were closing or making redundancies.

One of the big reforms planned in Sarkozy’s austerity policy is the attack on retirement and pension arrangements. But, at the very same moment, Woerth, the minister of labour, in charge of smashing pension rights, has caused a scandal with his corrupt dealings with the boss of l’Oréal, Mme. Bettencourt (who has a fortune amounting to 22 billion euros, when it is well known that the Social Security deficit, of which the pension funds form part, is also 22 billion euros…). As part of the deal Woerth arranged certain tax advantages for Bettencourt in the order of 100 million euros in exchange for several hundred thousand euros in donations to the party of President Sarkozy, the UMP. This collusion uncovered between the presidential party and the big fortune-holders has fuelled the anger of workers and the general population against the policies of the government, and against Sarkozy in particular.

This anger finds its expression on the streets

The attack on pensions aims to extend total contribution years to 41.5, and postpone the age of retirement to 62, with a full pension only payable at 67. For many this is going to mean a much reduced pension, and, for young people, fewer openings on the job market since workers will retire later. The hundreds and thousands of euros which the government is trying to take from the workers are just so many gifts to the rich and the capitalists. The government’s aim is to move gradually towards a system of private pensions.

Since the announcement of the attack on pensions, the days of action which bring together workers from both public and private sectors, have multiplied. The 24th June was the first time such a last-minute strike call brought so many workers onto the streets, and millions of workers demonstrated, demanding that the fight should continue in September. All through the summer activists built intensively for the 7th September, the next strike date. Although this date fell very soon after the end of the Summer holidays there were 2.5 million people on the streets. In many towns such a level of mobilisation had not been seen since 1995. Following this day, the trade union leaderships, under pressure from the rank and file who were not prepared to leave matters there, called a further strike day for 23rd September. Again there was a massive response and 3 million were on the streets. Increasingly trade union activists and workers are pushing the trade union leaderships to call stronger and extended action. Thus the trade union leaders have been forced to call not only a demonstration on Saturday 2nd October but also a further strike day on the 12th October. Last Saturday’s demonstartions, far from indicating that the movement was becoming exhausted, showed real anger on the part of the entire population.

Many people with no tradition of demonstrating came out onto the streets that day to show their anger. Since it was not a strike it was possible to see other sections of the class such as workers from smaller firms and casual workers, but also the less likely sections from larger workplaces: managers, and workers who had not previously been on strike in the recent weeks.

Banner reads: "Pensions: on strike until retirement"

A movement from the depths

Certain sections of workers are going to use the opportunity presented by 12th October to go further and launch an indefinite general strike. There are more and more calls for such action: railway workers, dockers, miners, workers in petrochemicals and the energy sector… Sometimes several unions in these sectors are making such calls, sometimes it is just the CGT, as with the education sector (for the time being). There are also more and more local or workplace-based initiatives which can play a big role.

When the workers in the CGT and SUD unions who work for Total oil refineries called for a renewable strike (i.e. each morning a general assembly of the workforce decides whether or not to continue the strike) this pushed the CGT in the petrochemical sector to come out for a renewable strike. Since the start of the movement, the city of Marseilles (and the department of Bouches du Rhone, of which it forms part) has been the spearhead and there have been no fewer than 230 calls for a renewable strike in that area, from council workers to seamen. In Paris several Post Office trade unions, for example, have also called for renewable strikes. In Rouen the CGT public transport union has given notice of a strike from 12th October to 30th November.

Pensions, but also the general situation, made worse by the crisis

The pensions issue is the unifying element but there is a challenge to Sarkozy across all of his policies. In a survey 71% said they were opposed to the pensions reform and 74% were against Sarkozy’s policies overall. This anti-Sarkozy feeling is very strong among young people and more and more school and university students are joining the strikes and demonstrations.

There is a general sense that ‘enough is enough’ and many workers are being radicalised. Many local struggles are being sparked off by working conditions or pay or by other government attacks. Workers at the two large oil terminals near Marseilles have been on strike for twelve days against a reform of the ports which will lead to a worsening of working conditions, with the prospect of extended action on the next strike day affecting all port activity. In numerous post offices, sorting and distribution centres local strikes have broken out.

It remains uncertain to what extent there will be renewable strikes in the private sector. Pensions as an issue are just as important to all workers as working conditions and wages and the delegations from workplaces in the private sector were larger on the 23rd September than on the 7th. Sometimes strikes are breaking out in workplaces where workers are going on strike for the first time ever. On 11th October administrative staff at Educatel (a company offering correspondence courses) will be on strike for their 41st consecutive day. Last Friday, 3,500 workers from car plants across France invaded the ‘Motor Show’ in Paris and amongst the slogans could be seen : ‘Michelin, world champion at closing factories’.

What are the prospects ?

Despite the explosive situation the level of consciousness is still confused. Workers’ anger and the anti-Sarkozy feeling are becoming widespread but there is no clear way forward. There are still many bureaucratic obstacles in the trade unions and despite constant mobilisation for strikes and demonstrations, there is a lack of a clear strategy. The government has made only meagre concessions and has made it clear there will not be any more. Clearly a setback for them on this issue would be a signal to the whole of Europe, to the capitalists as well as the European working class, that a defeat for neo-liberal politics in Europe is possible.

The right, which is badly split and fears a massive unlimited general strike, is closing ranks. For the moment, only a generalised strike movement from the 12th onwards (including demonstrations on the 16th October which the trade unions have already announced) can take the movement forward. The increasing number of general assemblies and action committees should help to build this movement and also reach out to workplaces which are not yet on strike but could be.

The heart of the problem remains the absence of clear political perspectives, of a socialist alternative to capitalism and of a mass workers’ party to put that forward. The current movement is laying the basis for a period of social and political turmoil, with plenty of opportunities for struggle and for political discussions about the alternative to Sarkozy and to capitalism. We must take advantage of these opportunities by making concrete proposals to take the struggle forward and raising the perspective of socialist revolution.

That is what Gauche Revolutionnaire (Revolutionary Left, French Section of the Committee for a Workers’ International) is attempting to do, both through our work in the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party), where we are a tendency, and through our paper and youth paper. The current events show once more that the deepening crisis and the increasing attacks by the employers and the government are repeatedly pushing workers into action, and each time at a higher stage.

Translated by Paul Gerrard (CWI, England and Wales)

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October 2010