French workers strike against Sarkozy
John Mullen, Socialist Alternative, December 2007
Just six months after Nicolas Sarkozy became president of France, promising to be the Thatcher the bosses were desperate for, a wave of strikes is showing that working class resistance is alive and well. And union leaders keen on "realism" and capitulation are finding that the rank and file are not having it.
The day of action on Tuesday 20 November saw millions on strike, and 700,000 on the demonstrations. Half the schools were closed, and workers in local government, hospitals, and the media struck too. Meanwhile two-thirds of the trains and metros were still not running after a week of transport strikes, and school students are slowly joining university students in the protest against government plans to give more control of universities to business circles. Fifty universities are blockaded.
Teachers, nurses, solicitors, magistrates, postal workers, gas and electricity workers, fishermen and civil servants have also taken action, along with ballet dancers, actors and stagehands at both Paris opera houses and the Comédie-Française theatre.
The transport workers were fighting to safeguard their pensions, the public sector is protesting against a wage freeze and job cuts. But the struggles are linked, and civil servants routinely invited contingents of railwaymen or students to lead their demonstrations.
Railworkers' pensions: a symbolic battle
In France workers were able over the years to defend a decent pensions system. Then in 1993 private sector pensions were cut back, and you had to work 40 years, not 37.5, to get a full pension. In 2003, despite strikes by millions, this was extended to the public sector: 40 years working life for everyone, and scary plans to increase that soon. The idea is not really to make people work longer (employers try to get rid of you anyway after you're 55), but to make sure few people retire on a full pension, so there is more money for the bosses.
But a few sectors were not included in the 2003 attacks. Highly unionised railway, metro, electricity and gas workers were still on 37.5 years. Sarkozy declared that it was essential to change this ("in the name of fairness"). He chose his battlefield carefully, knowing a lot of workers accept that everyone should work 40 years. But many also understand that this so-called "fairness" is just the preliminary to pushing everyone to 41, 42 years or more. So the strikes are not unpopular.
The government hoped union leaders would rush into a compromise. They were particularly keen to beat the railway workers on the pensions issue, an important symbol. But because of the strike wave, they now say money can be found for wage rises if job cuts continue. The balance of forces will determine what kind of compromise comes out of this initial battle.
Sadly, all the transport union leaders agreed to negotiations even though Sarkozy said he would not budge on the key points. But the rank and file put a lot of pressure on union leaders. The renewal of the transport strike was voted in mass meetings at transport depots every evening, and union leaders dared not completely ignore the very high votes (often 90 per cent) for continuing.
In France there are several union confederations, divided by politics. The right-wing CFDT quickly moved to call for the strikes to end. The more left-wing CGT leadership suggested that the strike should be stopped, but they feared to go further for fear of rank and file anger.
Outside transport, union leaders have more control on actions, and the rank and file have less independent means of pressure - though some mass meetings of teachers and civil servants did push for a more determined stance.
The Socialist Party does not support the strikes, and in particular not the transport strikes. The Communist Party is better but limits itself to calling for "genuine negotiations". Only revolutionaries and the large non-party left are supporting the strikes. The revolutionary left are very visible on demonstrations and in the press. "There's nobody in the space between Sarkozy and Besancenot" complained a conservative MP (Besancenot is the spokesperson of the Revolutionary Communist League, LCR). This visibility however needs desperately to be transformed into a much bigger organisation of activists - the LCR has only 3000 members. Consistent rank and file resistance to union leader sell-outs needs organisation on a national scale.
Sarkozy has already had to back-pedal on his warlike election slogans, when he spoke of banning strikes in public services with a "minimum service" obligation. But he has also been able to pass a raft of attacks on workers, on immigrants and on public services.
What will happen next is not clear, rapid compromise or a movement which continues to rise. What is clear is that these inspiring events constitute only the first of many waves of struggle against Sarkozy's attacks.
Cet article est paru dans Socialist Alternative
fin novembre 2007