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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 October 2010

Protest, strike, fightback! French workers and youth challenge cuts

French workers demonstrate in Brussels for the European day of action, 29 September 2010, photo Paul Mattsson

French workers demonstrate in Brussels for the European day of action, 29 September 2010, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The mobilisation of the French working class has now reached a crucial stage. Strikes and mass demonstrations on 19 October, according to the CGT trade union confederation, again brought a staggering 3.5 million people onto the streets. Starting from a fierce opposition to the pensions reform, the movement has taken a much wider, deeper, and more radical character.
CEDRIC GEROME and Alex RouillaRd (Gauche Revolutionnaire, CWI France) write here of how this movement of the French workers, as well as the youth, has become an opportunity to demonstrate their massive anger against the general state of affairs, and their rejection of the present right-wing Sarkozy government.

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 Nicolas 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 to be cut between 2007 and 2012) through the privatisation of the health service to mass redundancies, the working class is spared nothing.

Sarkozy's 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. Young people see this as an attack, predicting fewer openings in 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.

It is the accumulated frustration with the deteriorating working conditions, the wages, the rising unemployment, the arrogance of Sarkozy and his super-rich cliques, the growing poverty linked to the billions given to the rich, which is now bursting out on the surface in all corners of the country.

Generalised discontent

Quoted in the Observer Cecile Rimboud, member of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) in Paris, said: "For us, this is a protest not only against the pensions reform, but also against the wider politics of this government - politics that favour those who are already favoured by society".

One of the big reforms planned in Sarkozy's austerity policy is the attack on retirement and pension arrangements. But, at the very same time, Eric Woerth, France's labour minister in charge of smashing pension rights, has caused a scandal with his dealings with the boss of cosmetics company l'Oréal. Liliane Bettencourt has a fortune amounting to €22 billion. On the basis of Sarkozy's tax 'cap' for the very richest Bettencourt received a tax repayment of €30 million!

This was in part in exchange for several hundred thousand euros in donations to the party of President Sarkozy, the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (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.

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.

The support for the social movement is still standing firm, even tending to rise in the opinion polls. In one poll, published on Monday, even 34% of "right-wing sympathisers" are supporting the movement, with 88% for the left. The impressive figures for the seven days of actions which have already taken place since June show that workers are determined not to give up.

Since the announcement of the attack on pensions, the days of action which bring together workers from both public and private sectors, have multiplied. 24 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 7 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 23 September. Again there was a massive response and three million were on the streets.

Even capitalist newspapers are full of comments and interviews giving strong indications that the mood is moving towards further radicalisation. Criticisms of the conservative attitude of the trade union leadership, and against their refusal to take decisive action, are not missing either. "Members are fed up with simply strolling through the streets", "We need to pass to a new stage, a new level of action", "the friendly walks ending in Paris's periphery don't lead to anything anymore, we need to harden the conflict", "it is by immobilising the country's economy that the government, voice of the bosses, will listen to us.", etc..

This growing tempest of protests is polarising the whole political landscape, with even the opposition leaders of the so-called "Socialist" Party, who had earlier called for a two-year increase to the retirement age, asking now for Sarkozy to withdraw "purely and simply" its reforms, warning of the risk of greater confrontations.

The mood is one of sustained radicalisation, and a lot of workers who are not yet on strike, or who cannot go on strike easily for different reasons, are looking sympathetically to the movement, and could join it in the very next period.

On the other hand, Sarkozy has not decided to give up either. The implications of a retreat for the government are too big. Such a retreat would give a new influx and confidence to the workers, who, feeling their force, could initiate a new, and more massive, wave of struggle that could have further repercussions, including beyond French borders.

Workers will get increasingly hungry, not only for defeating the pensions reform, but to push the struggle further and use the present movement to achieve demands on a wide range of other issues. Sarkozy has therefore decided to inflict a harsh defeat on the French workers' movement - of a scale similar to what Thatcher inflicted on the miners in Britain in the 1980s - in the hope of opening the gates for a range of harsh neoliberal attacks. The French government's inflexible stance has become in itself a factor in the radicalising of the masses.

Young people join protests

Sarkozy was quoted by the satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné who recently declared: "We must at all costs avoid the mobilisation of the youth. For a government, there is nothing worse than a junction between the social and the education front. I'm not talking about teachers who strike when they return from vacation, but school and college students. They must be watched closely like milk on a stove."

Since last week, the decisive entering of the youth, especially the school-students, into the movement, has given it a new character, and has dashed the government's hopes that the end of the mobilisations could approach soon. Recently young people in France took to the streets during the struggle against the CPE, the 'First Job Contract', that allows workers under 26 to be sacked without reason or warning during their first 24 months with any employer in 2006.

One French commentator then said: "French school students are like toothpaste; when they go out into the streets it is impossible to put them back". This lesson is being learnt once again by the French establishment, which, by multiplying provocations against the youth to avoid them participating in the movement, has only succeeded in convincing more to join.

And the university students, who have mostly stayed in the starting blocks until now, are also expressing growing signs of their will to join the struggle. Significantly, in a recent survey published in Le Monde, a quarter of French young people "want a radical transformation of society through revolutionary change".

One striking feature of the present movement is the lack of a central leadership, providing clear answers and a strategy to organise the struggle. The national leaderships of the big trade union confederations are stuck in a state of near-paralysis, not really knowing how to proceed in order to manage a 'soft landing' of the present mobilisations. Controlling their troops and bringing an end to the radicalisation wave has become their main concern. The newspaper Le Figaro has quoted Maurice Thorez, general secretary of the French Communist Party during the mass strikes of June 1936: "It is necessary to know how to finish a strike".

That is the dilemma facing the top officials of the trade union movement. From the start they entertained hopes that Sarkozy would open negotiations and give some concessions and amendments to the reform, which would allow them to buy a temporary social peace.

However, the present period is not one of social peace and sustainable economic growth, where the ruling class can 'afford' to give such concessions; it is one of economic crisis, heightened economic competition between capitalist countries, and decisive social wars that the ruling classes, in France as throughout Europe, are leading against the working class's gains of the past.

Unions pushed from below

Some of the right-wing union leaders are still expecting that the vote in the senate on the pensions reform on Wednesday could represent an 'alibi' for a 'fair' retreat, arguing that 'the struggle is over now, we have done all we could do'. However, this does not take into account the fact that workers and young people are not ready to give up the fight so easily. The idea that 'we need to continue the struggle until victory' - even if what is meant by 'victory' is still quite confused among the broad layers of workers - is widespread.

Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the CGT, the largest trade union confederation in France, declared his opposition to a general strike in a radio interview, rejecting it as an "abstract slogan which doesn't correspond to the practices to improve the relationship of forces". But since the protests on 16 October Thibault declared that the vote in the senate won't prevent the movement's continuation afterwards. This reflects that the whole trade union bureaucratic apparatus can be pushed by a powerful movement and that they fear losing control.

To some extent, this is already the case. In a recent poll 54% of people say they want a "general strike like in 1995". This refers to the mass strike movement which stopped the 'Juppé Plan', an extensive program of welfare cutbacks, in 1995. Now in 2010, every day new sectors are announcing actions. The courageous strike actions and blockades by workers from oil refineries and dockers have resulted in a small state of panic for the government and the bosses. These actions have been joined by many others, in the public and the private sectors, such as the truck drivers.

Renewable strike actions, whereby each morning a general assembly of the workforce decides whether or not to continue the strike, are voted for in hundreds of workplaces. All this is done, most of the time, in a spontaneous way by initiatives from below since the union leaders have been in denial of the need for a general strike all the way through. The decisive question now being posed is how this released energy will develop in the next period.

Indisputably, the present situation in France presents some pre-revolutionary elements. The ruling class is increasingly divided, the government extremely unpopular, the middle classes feel their position undermined and are losing their confidence in the present regime, and the working class, at least the most advanced sectors, are showing a tremendous determination to fight, having given birth to a movement which is even surprising the more far-sighted commentators.

On the other hand, the degree of organisation and of experience of the working class has suffered important setbacks in the last decades when neoliberal ideas have been to the fore. This weighs in a negative way on the situation. Political understanding is not on the same level that it was in May 1968, a period during which socialism was seen by broad layers of workers and youth as an alternative to capitalism.

Today in France discussions are flowering on how to organise the struggle, the will to get rid of Sarkozy's government is very popular, but the discussions are not generally yet reaching the stage of 'what's the political alternative to the present system?'

Nevertheless the question of an open-ended general strike is now blowing in the air. Sarkozy and the capitalist class are playing a decisive card in this struggle, while the majority of workers and young people, having tasted a glimpse of their immense potential force, are deciding to push the struggle further. All the ingredients are present for a massive confrontation between the classes. Yet, the leaders at the top of the movement are using all their efforts to avoid such a scenario, scared as they are of losing control over the situation.

All out general strike

An all-out general strike, by bringing the whole economy to a halt, could not only force the government and the bosses to retreat on their immediate agenda. It would also pose, in effect, the question of who has the power in society. The vital lessons of May 1968 must be re-visited by a new generation of activists, to become prepared for such an outcome, and all that it implies.

The possibility of an all-out general strike needs to be discussed, prepared for and built up consistently in all workplaces, schools and universities, assisted by regular general assemblies, and democratically-elected bodies of action.

Coordinated on a local, regional, and national level, those bodies would bring the possibility of raising the struggle to a new level. They would form the basis for a decisive struggle to replace Sarkozy and Co. with a government of workers' representatives, elected by bodies such as these, and open the way for a socialist change of society.

In expropriating the major monopolies and banks, and putting them under the democratic control and management of the working class, the starting lines would be drawn for the building of a planned economy to function in the interests of the majority.

There are many uncertainties and complications regarding the outcome and aftermath of what is developing in France at the moment. The situation is so volatile and the atmosphere so electric that one small element can make the whole situation blow up.

France is entering a new period, where French youth and workers have made significant steps forward, but are still searching for a clear political expression for their anger against a system that is made only for the rich. The next days will see new developments, new actions, and opportunities to raise the need of changing this society.

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