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Strikes against pension cuts
Where is the fight headed in France?

By Sherry Wolf | June 20, 2003 | Page 7

AS FRENCH workers took part in another day of nationwide strike action June 10, police attacked demonstrating teachers and transportation workers in confrontations across the country. In one police assault in central Paris, cops fired tear gas and then waded into the crowd, beating demonstrators. Strikers retreated into the Garnier Opera, but not before dozens were arrested.

Since early May, regional walkouts have broadened into a strike wave involving millions of public- and private-sector workers. The strikes are a protest of the government's plan to "reform" the state-run pension system.

Currently, public-sector workers can retire with full benefits after 37.5 years--the years of service requirement for private-sector workers was increased to 40 years a decade ago. The right-wing government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin wants to force all workers into the 40-year requirement by 2008--and increase that again to 42 years by 2020. When the previous conservative government of Prime Minister Alain Juppé tried to force through a similar "reform" plan in 1995, mass strikes by public-sector workers brought the country to a standstill, defeating the proposal and bringing down Juppé.

In response to the current wave of strikes, the government has given ground on the scope and timing of its attempt to decentralize the nation's free public education system. As a result, high school teachers--some of whom have been on all-out strike for more than two months--responded by allowing graduation exams, known as the baccalaureate, to take place last week. But teachers, who started mobilizing eight months ago, resolved to continue strike action next week in solidarity with other workers.

In some cities, garbage has gone uncollected for almost two weeks. And though national rail service has resumed in some regions, record traffic jams clogged roads for 145 miles around Paris. According to opinion polls, 66 percent of people support the strikers, and almost half want Raffarin to reopen negotiations on the pension plan.

The potential has existed for a general strike, according to union militants, but labor leaders stood in the way. "The union leaders' insistence each week on waiting for one more day of action before working to generalize the strike has caused tremendous damage," says John Mullen, a member of the French socialist group Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. "On Thursday, national union leaders were shouted down with cries of 'general strike' by crowds of workers in Marseilles--something we haven't seen in France for 30 or 40 years. But the union leaders still run the show in most towns."

Another day of action has been set for June 19, and some militants in major unions are calling for extending the days of action into a general strike. "Whatever happens this round, workers are going back much more organized and aware than before," Mullen said.

"Tens of thousands have been involved in inter-professional strike committees, which bring together teachers, bus workers, nurses, street cleaners and others in mass meetings to discuss the issues of the struggle. Organizations of rank-and-file unionists have been able to take over effective leadership of the struggle in certain towns against the wishes of the union full-timers. Tens of thousands in the unions are very, very angry and are asking hard questions about why the union leaderships weren't sufficiently behind the struggle.

"The revolutionary organizations--and in particular we in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire--have been deeply involved in the strikes and, though still small, have gained respect among the most combative sections of the workforce. And the government is launching new attacks all the time. In the last 10 days, there have been leaked reports of plans to privatize the nationalized electricity suppliers, to institute legal limits on strikes in public services and to make people pay a larger percentage of health care costs. If late June doesn't see this struggle against pension attacks rise up again, the autumn could easily see even bigger explosions in France."

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