France: Hollande’s austerity plans must be blocked

United private-public sector strike vital

From the 10th to the 24th of June, railway workers in many parts of France were on strike. Their protest was against a new ‘reform’ of the SNCF, the National Rail service. It has become, in just a few years, a big commercial corporation with more than 880 subsidiaries in France and around the world.

False ‘official’ figures claimed that only 28% of rail workers were on strike when it was in fact more than 55% the first two days. But they didn’t explain how nearly 80% of the traffic was down! In the context of very few generalised struggles in France since the pensions reform of president Sarkozy in September 2010, the rail workers’ strike was the first national struggle and boosted other workers such as entertainment workers (“intermittents”) who have entered a national struggle against new attacks on their job status.

Recent studies from different ‘social intelligence’ NGOs, and even the British ‘Economist’, have shown that the level of strikes in France has been high compared to other European countries for the last 15 years, but has seen a continuing decline. Nevertheless, this does not take in account what can be also be called ‘labour conflicts’: a one day or a few hours’ strike, which often happens in the course of a long battle.

An example is the Goodyear factory in Amiens where workers have been waging a battle for the last seven years against a gruesome choice between worsening working conditions (including working on Sundays with normal pay) or the closure of the factory. This horrible blackmail was even more vicious because the tyre production market is going down in western Europe and redundancies were, anyway, very likely to happen. And the battle in Goodyear is far from being the only one. In fact, the last five years have seen big defensive, but unfortunately isolated, battles against redundancies, factory closures, attacks on wages etc.

Literally hundreds of defensive strikes have taken place in the last two years – La Redoute, Citroën Aulnay, Goodyear, Fralib-Unilever, Mory-Ducros, Arcelor-Mittal, Sanofi and others. Local newspapers are also regularly reporting on strikes in many small factories – mainly on the issues of wages and working conditions or for permanent contracts for casual workers. Postal workers in the North West of Paris (in the Hauts-de-Seine area) have been on strike for more than 150 days! This strike has sparked off similar strikes in post offices in the 15th district of Paris… and also in Corsica, where the central Post of Ajaccio has been involved in a strike since May 21st.

La Poste (French Post Office) is now more and more a bank rather than a mail delivery company. It is not a state-owned service anymore and is gradually becoming a corporation. (It is as yet still under state control from the time it was transformed into an autonomous company in 1991 under president Mitterrand.)

In 2013 the Post Office cut 4,500 jobs – the equivalent of a car factory as big as Citroën-Aulnay. But in the same year it received €297 million in tax cuts thanks to the first spending plan of Hollande in 2012 (called CICE) which made €20 billion available for different private companies. Helping the corporations by letting them fire or over-exploit workers while continuing an austerity policy; this is what two years of Hollande’s policy comes down to. And the next three years are being fashioned from the same wood.

Ongoing attacks

The recent elections have shown a growing discontent against the PS-Green coalition, alongside with falling support for the ‘traditional’ right. Generally, a majority of people think and say that Hollande is carrying out the same policies as his predecessor, Sarkozy. Banners on demonstrations say that Gattaz, president of the bosses’ association Medef, is de facto co-president.

Hollande’s reaction, after the swathe of defeats in the municipal elections of March this year, was: “We have heard the message, we will go faster!”. The plan is certainly very vague but in fact amounts to continuing the reorganisation of the French economy while hoping for a rebound in the world economy. Being the obedient servant of the bosses and the banks leads the president to impose more and more austerity measures while handing over hefty financial gifts for the bosses.

The new Austerity Plan (Plan de responsabilité) is supposed to cut €billions from different public service and social care budgets in the next three years. Combined with the CICE, it would give around €41billion in tax cuts to private firms. Also, the government has succeeded in implementing new attacks on the labour laws and collective bargaining. For example, the agreement between unions including the CFDT and the employers (Medef), known as the ANI, allows the firing of employees who refuse a lowering of wages in their contracts.

While many workers still face big attacks from the bosses, all these new plans from Hollande within the last two years have also fed a deeper anger against the whole “system”. In elections, it has been partially reflected in the high level of abstention and non-inscription on the electoral lists, and in another way in the vote for the National Front. In the polls, Hollande is at 18% popularity, the lowest ever for a president in the Fifth Republic. But all this anger is struggling to express itself clearly in a unified fight-back.

That explains the space the Front National (FN) has stepped into, taking political positions that are completely unexpected if you compare them with a few years ago. For example, FN leaders declared that they “understand the strike of the rail workers” even though they think “it is not the solution”. This is a long way from the programme of the FN until a few years ago when it was for a ban on the right to strike in public transport and in favour of the privatisation of the SNCF. The National Front now even argues for a complete freeze of the European Directive on liberalisation of the railway service. It is not to the left of the rail workers on strike who are against such deregulation but it sounds a bit more radical than the CP and Left Front who have jumped into an erroneous debate about a “key point to prepare the SNCF for liberalisation”.

The declaration did not have a real impact because the FN does not have enough activists to distribute leaflets with that position and it is not certain that they would agree with such an opportunistic turn. Also, as soon as the media is not giving them much prominence, the National Front does not have the capacity to really influence economic and social debates and even less the workers’ struggle. It shows once again that the NF is not very strong but occupies a certain space because of the lack of a radical alternative on the left.

No generalised resistance

The main union, and still the most combative inside the factories, the CGT, has never tried to organise such a generalised resistance. This allows the bosses to once again come forward with new demands, putting pressure on a very sympathetic government. The Medef and seven other bosses’ organisations have sent an open letter to the government stating that its plans were insufficient and asking the government to go further, finishing by refusing the very small concessions they are supposed to make to justify the agreement of the CFDT and other unions.

Ironically, the leader of the Christian union, that also follows the CFDT strategy of small gains (and in fact huge concessions at the same time) said: “Each time something is secured (in relation to wages or working time), they [the bosses] try to put it down by pressurising the government”. The bosses already have a policy that ensures big gains for them with very small concessions, but of course these unions will not change their approach. Using the hesitations of the CGT and its allies and the compromising of the CFDT bloc, the pressure that the bosses will put on the government will certainly lead to new attacks in the coming years.

Despite the massive level of attacks, the unions have failed to organise a decent fight back. This year, four days of ‘action’ have been called (two of these in common with the smaller unions Sud and the FSU), without a clear appeal and a campaign for a strike. The attitude of the CGT general secretary, Le Paon, is very ambiguous to say the least and in fact is disarming the workers and the very combative base of the CGT. In a recent interview, in March, Le Paon said,“The enterprise is a community composed of workers and managers, and these two populations should think and act together in the interest of the community”. It is a complete negation of the CGT’s basic programme which aims at the complete disappearance of exploitation. During the recent rail workers’ strike, the CGT leadership wavered between support and putting pressure on to calm down the strikes.

There is more and more discontent and anger expressed by the local branches and rank and file members. But, even if there is a common desire for the CGT to be more on the offensive in terms of mass action and strikes, unified proposals are lacking.

Railworkers’ strike

In such a complex situation, the railworkers’ strike was a decisive step toward mass action. This was a national strike, mainly initiated by the CGT and Sud unions. It was very strongly supported amongst the younger layers of the work force who were experiencing, often for the first time, the general assemblies, the daily votes to continue the strike etc.

National support for the strike from the union leaderships was too weak. The demos were joined by local activists and unions, but no real national call was launched. It was only on the eighth day of the strike that in various cities other sectors were called out (very furtively) and only on the tenth day in Paris, where the SNCF has the biggest depots. Nevertheless, this strike was seen positively by a significant layer of the population, fed up with Hollande’s pro- bosses policy. It was boosted by the struggle of the “intermittents” who decided to go on strike and/or maintain the struggle even during the Avignon drama festival and other summer events.

But what was clearly discussed in the demos and in the streets was the need for more radical mass action, a real day of complete strike, with blockades of lorries and ports. This complete stoppage would be the only correct response to the Hollande ‘Plan de responsabilité’ and it would be a real step forward in the struggle.

A new day of action called by the CGT on its own for 26th June got a relatively small response: too late in the year as it was too close to the summer holidays. But what the railworkers’ strike has put into the landscape is the need for a determined, massive and unified struggle to represent an explosion of anger and the resistance of the working class against the bosses’ attacks and the Hollande – Valls policies.

Tripartitite conference

New measures will certainly follow the ‘Social and economic conference’ that will bring together the unions, the bosses’ organisations and the government on the 7th and 8th of July. The CGT, SUD and others should come to this with clear demands: a rise in wages, the end of casual jobs, to be replaced by jobs with full contracts, a struggle against plant closures etc. They should quit this meeting if the government and the bosses refuse to accept such demands. Some local unions have discussed the need to boycott this mockery of a social and economic summit.

The austerity plan and other measures will have terrible effects on working conditions and standards of living. More than three million workers are fully unemployed and two more million are partly unemployed (working less than part time and staying registered to the national job centre service). Bosses are asking for more flexibility, aiming certainly at the minimum wage law and other things. Pensions and other aspects of the social security system are likely to be threatened soon. In fact, it is a generalised war against the working class that is going on.

The Left Front (Front de Gauche), formed of different groups and in which the CP is prominent, tries to find allies in the few ‘Socialist’ MPs who are reluctant to vote all the Hollande measures through. But it refuses to consider itself in real opposition to Hollande. The leader of the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), Melenchon, who was the leading candidate of the Left Front, has more or less the same attitude, sometimes harder, against Hollande and the SP. But he is aiming also to rebuild a ‘new majority’ in the left, aiming at the Greens who are still part of the ‘majority’ (coalition with the SP) even if they have left the government.

All this ‘political cuisine’ is quite far from the concerns of the masses and does not help the workers in their struggles. The help of individual Left Front MPs or mayors is, of course, important in struggles. But what is urgently needed is a political force to organise the working class and youth on a combative platform – one that would express anger against the system. It would have to underline the need for radical measures against the bosses with their more and more arrogant attitude while benefits and dividends to shareholders are still at a high level. Gattaz, the leader of the bosses union received an increase of 29% of his salary last March!

Parliamentary combinations will lead nowhere and social devastation continues. It is quite possible that GDP growth will be nil or even negative in 2014, and the bosses and the government will use that to justify new attacks. On the other hand, working and living conditions are worsening and becoming unbearable: a revolt could be sparked at any moment. It is necessary that, after the summer, a day of full strike action is clearly called by the unions as the first step towards a generalised movement in order to build the struggle of workers to refuse to pay for the crisis of capitalism.

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July 2014