Towards an explosion of struggle in France?

For The Daily Maybe  15 November 2007

A wave of strikes and protests is blossoming in France as I write. The new government, determined to « reform France», to « end once and for all the legacy of 1968 » but extra-careful to take it step by step, is finding mass resistance rising up in its path. It is impossible for the moment to know what will be the result a month or two from now.

The first battleground is pension rights. In France, although it does exist, poverty among old age pensioners is far far less common than in Britain, because workers have been able over the years to defend, more or less, a decent system. Then in 1993 pensions in the private sector were cut back. It was no longer enough to work 37 and a half years to get a full pension - you had to work forty years. In 2003, despite strikes and demonstrations by millions, that cutback was extended to the public sector. Forty years working life for everyone, and scary plans to increase that at the next Pensions Review in 2008. The idea was not really to make people work longer (in any case employers try to get rid of you after youíre fifty five), but more to make sure as few people as possible retire on a full pension, so as to save money on pensions.

But a few sectors were not included in the 2003 pension cuts - railway workers; metro workers, electricity and gas, the Paris Opera (!) and a couple of other groups of public sector workers were still on thirty seven and a half years. Sarkozy declared that it was essential to change this (« in the name of fairness »). The SNCF general manager went on TV to explain. The nice polite interviewer didnít ask her about the difference in life expectancy between train drivers and General Managers, nor about whether she had to get up at three or four in the morning.

Defending their pension scheme is the reason for the transport strikes which began last Tuesday. Sarkozy chose this battlefield carefully, knowing that a lot of workers accept that everyone should move to forty years.

Meanwhile in the universities, students are boycotting lectures and voting to blockade the campuses in almost half of the universities across France. This is a situation which could change from day to day. The beginning of the movement, however, has started up much more rapidly than was the case two years ago with the victorious movement against the First Employment Contract (a movement which ended with a delicious humiliation for the Conservative government). The issue for students this time is the new Law on Universities. This has been carefully written so as to present only a first step in Conservative counter-reform. Nevertheless, its clear aim is to increase private funding in universities, to make universities compete against each other for funding and students, to cut financing of arts and humanities and increase the financing of subjects closer to the hearts of profit. It also aims to create a real management structure in universities - giving much more power to the Rectors, who up to now have had to manage universities hand-in-hand with powerful committees of professors. The professorial committees could be pretty dusty - but better than being managed by a big boss who always has an eye on private sector funding.

This time round there has been much more of an attempt by anti-strike students to organize against the strikes. And a few cases of radical students being satisfied with small group action instead of wanting to draw in as many as possible. For example the national student coordinating committee declared they would block the railway stations the day before the rail strike - until rail union leaders asked them not to.

Finally, the public sector workers (teachers, hospitals and civil servants) are planning a one-day strike next Tuesday for wage rises and against job cuts. The government has been trumpeting about the need to reduce the numbers of state employees, who are badly paid compared with the private sector but have real job security. Sarkozyís slogan has been « only half of state employees who retire will be replaced. »

It is difficult to know how solid this public sector strike will be, and whether there is a chance it will be renewed after the first twenty four hours. This will fundamentally depend on how far the transport strikes and student revolts have risen by next Tuesday.

The transport union leaders are desperately looking for a way out. A very minor concession by Sarkozy saying he was willing to have governmental representatives attend negotiations between public transport managers and unions, is being used as an excuse by union leaders to say that the strike could end soon. The most conservative union - the CFDT - has called for an end to the strike. The major more radical union leaders - those of the CGT - have not dared to do this, not wanting to cut themselves off from an angry rank and file. But they have been saying how wonderful it is that these negotiations will allow them to talk directly to government representatives.

The stakes are high. If the railway and metro workers are beaten, demoralization could easily set in in all the other sectors, including students. The struggle, today Friday, hangs in the balance. If the strike stake off next week, we are in for a big explosion.

Already, it is excellent news that the struggle has risen so high. If the unions had given in without a strike, the government would have automatically accelerated their attacks in every area of economic and social life. But what we really need is not just proof that we can fight, to make the bosses wary, but proof that we can win, to make them terrified.

The major defeat for our side in 2003 on pensions, and the major victory for the workers in 2006 against the First Employment Contract, give the context - it could go either way. All radicals in France should be doing everything they can to make it go our way.

John Mullen (Editor, Socialisme International )  15.11.07

Update Wednesday 21st November

The day of action on Tuesday 20th November saw millions on strike, and well over half a million on the street demonstrations. Half the schools in the country were closed, and hundreds of thousands of local government workers, hospital workers, teachers and media workers took strike action. Meanwhile two thirds of the trains and metros are still not running after a week of transport strikes, and school students are slowly joining students in the mass protest movement against the government plans to give more control of universities to Business circles. Fifty universities are at least partially blockaded.

The transport workers are striking to safeguard their pension scheme, the other public sector workers are protesting against an effective wage freeze, and swingeing job cuts. But everyone seems to realize the struggles are linked, and civil servants routinely invite contingents of railwaymen or students to lead the demonstrations.

The government remains determined, and is hoping the union leaders will rush into a compromise. They are particularly keen to beat the railway workers on the pensions issue, which is an important symbol. But because of the force of the movement they are now saying that money could be found for wage rises if job cuts continue and working hours increase. The balance of forces will determine what kind of compromise comes out of this battle.

Sadly, already, all the transport union leaders have agreed to open negotiations even though the government says they will not budge on the key attacks. But the rank and file is putting a lot of pressure on them. The renewal of the strike is voted in mass meetings at every transport depot every evening, and only the most right wing of union leaders dares to completely ignore the very high votes (often over 90%) for continuing the strike.

In France there are several union confederations, not divided by industry sector but by politics. The most right wing, the CFDT, lost a huge section of its members after it supported the right wing government pension cuts in 2003. The CFDT is calling for the strikes to end now, « so that negotiations can go on calmly ». The CGT leadership, much more left wing in general, is suggesting that « the time has come » to stop the strike « in order to keep all our cards in hand » or words to that effect, but they dare not clearly call for an end to the strike for fear of the anger of the rank and file.

Outside the transport sector, union leaders have more control on what action will happen, and the rank and file have less independent means of pressure - at least for the moment, though some mass meetings of teachers and civil servants have been pushing the union leaders for a more determined stance.

As for the political Left, the Socialist party does not support the strikes, and in particular not the transport strikes, though they do feel obliged to express some support for the students, an important base for their party. The Communist party is better but limits itself to calling for « genuine negotiations ». Only the radical Left - revolutionaries and the large non-party Left - are actively supporting the strikes.

What will happen next is not clear. What is clear is that this is only the first of many waves of struggle. The election victory of Sarkozy has not demoralized the workers so much they dare not fight. And the strikes are not so unpopular: opinion is divided, but an anti-strike demonstration could only get a couple of thousand well-dressed walkers out on Sunday. Whatever the compromise this round, Sarkozy has a hard few years ahead of him.
John Mullen

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