France: millions on the march against cuts

Judy Beishon reports from France on the protest movement and the debates within it on a way forward.

Socialist Voice June 2003

Across Europe, workers are taking to the streets to protest against the attack on pension rights and on other issues. On 3 June one million people in Austria, out of a population of eight million, went on strike against proposed cuts of between 30% - 50% in workers' pensions.

This was the second strike and third major mobilisation in Austria in less than a month. Strike action on this issue is being threatened by the three main trade union federations in Italy this month.

But it is been in France where the most explosive movement to date has taken place. Two days of protest in February and April were followed by large May Day demonstrations, involving 300,000. Then on 13 May up to two million workers in 115 towns and cities took part in a day of strikes and demonstrations. Some workers stayed out the following day.

On 19 May, 700,000 turned out in 70 towns and cities. One and a half million demonstrated in Paris on Sunday 25 May. Another strike and day of protest on 3 June brought one and a half million out on demonstrations across the country. 250,000 marched in Paris and a similar number in Marseille where the movement has gone further than in other areas.

Private sector workers have joined the protests. Although not all those who were out on the earlier strikes participated fully on 3 June other workers who had not been involved including some in small businesses and call centres came out this time.

These movements are bigger than the protests that derailed the last attempt by a French government to introduce similar measure in 1995. They are not - yet - on the scale of the 10 million strong general strike which rocked France, and Europe, in May 1968.

There is massive support for this movement; polls show at least 65% of people supporting the protests. The still sporadic nature of the movement is down to hesitancy on the part of the trade union leadership and the lack of any political force capable of spelling out a socialist alternative to the Raffarin/Chirac government's plans.

Public sector workers are enraged by the right-wing government's plan to worsen their pensions. Among other measures, they will have to work for 40 years instead of 37.5 to get full pension entitlement.

But the movement has gone beyond the specific attacks that triggered it, into a mass response to the threat neo-liberal policies pose to all French workers. Not only does everyone use public services, but in France, a quarter of the workforce is in the public sector and half of all households have at least one family member working for it, so it is not surprising that most workers support the movement.

Trade union federation leaders have been struggling to keep themselves at the head of the movement while at the same time trying to stop it from developing into a general strike. Not having any perspective that differs much from the failed policies of the Socialist Party (PS) and Communist Party (PC) leaders, they fear the further development of the mass movement and the prospect of it developing along the lines of 1968.

Leaders of the CFDT, one of the three main union federations in the public sector, have signed up to Raffarin's 'reforms' to great anger from their rank and file. Large contingents of CFDT workers took part in the 25 May and 3 June demonstrations, furious following their leadership's capitulation.

The other two main federations in the public sector, the CGT and Force OuvriĆre (FO), are still trying to head the movement, but a general strike is "not called for", according to the leadership of the CGT, and Marc Blondel, the leader of Force OuvriĆre, was quoted in the newspaper Le Monde as dismissing a general strike and saying it is of a "political, insurrectionary nature"! But they are under intense pressure from below, and dragged along by it, have been forced to back or call for the repeated days of mobilisation, while also trying to make sure there are days in between to stop continuity of action and a momentum building up. However, at present the movement is growing rapidly, and with a large layer of workers recognising the need for a general strike of public and private sector workers, the prospect of one is inherent in the situation.

In the face of the scale of this movement, there is great tension in Raffarin's government. Following the 1995 climb-down of JuppÄ, Raffarin is under pressure to push through his cuts programme, from a capitalist class fearful of reduced income and profits.

Their fear stems from an economic situation that is far worse than in 1995, as a result of a collapse in the growth rate (a fall "as steep as the upper slopes of the Eiffel Tower" according to one commentator), which is linked to the developing crisis in the world economy. The public spending deficit has gone over the Eurozone limit of 3% of GDP and the economy is likely to be shown as being in recession when full figures are known.

The government wants workers to pay the price of the crisis through conducting a rapid assault on the welfare state. However, terrified at the growing strike movement, some government ministers are wary of trying to do too much, too quickly, which has already led to a postponement of university autonomy legislation and discussions on deferring it for schools. This is with the aim of trying to achieve their main objective, pension cuts.

The union leaders, desperate for the government to negotiate a deal that they can try to pass off as a significant concession, may yet find a way to derail the movement. But French workers are at present extremely confident, combative and intent on pursuing the battle further. When Raffarin arrogantly stated: "the street doesn't rule", workers responded with warnings such as: "Raffarin should remember that the street elected him" and that "revolutions start in the street".

Workers in many areas are reviving a tradition of holding open rank and file 'general assemblies', meeting daily in some cases to vote on continued action and to discuss strike plans. They vary from assemblies based on one establishment, to cross-sector bodies involving public and private sectors, as exists in Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand and Marseille.

Activists in our sister party Gauche Revolutionnaire (GR) are playing a leading role in their local workers' assemblies and realise the key role these bodies can play in building for a general strike. They call for a determined plan to develop them and argue that they should be delegate-based with all delegates subject to recall, cross-linked between the public and private sectors and linked up between regions and nationally.

Following the move to the right of the PS and PC, GR also recognises the need for a new mass workers' party. The French Trotskyist organisations LCR and Lutte OuvriĆre had a combined vote of over 10% in the first round of the Presidential elections last year, yet have so far failed to capitalise on that support and to adopt programmes that can take the present workers' struggles forward.

With the French government digging in for a Thatcherite policy, the need for an indefinite general strike is urgent. Workers need to link up their struggles and pose a workers' alternative to the rule of Raffarin and Chirac on the right and also to the left representatives of the capitalist system.

A general strike would reveal the potential power that the working class holds in society and would raise the need for a government of workers' representatives. This could proceed to introduce public ownership of the major companies and banks and a socialist plan of production, to lay the basis for a socialist society that would guarantee decent services and living standards for all.

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