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Confronting Sarkozy's offensive in France

By Alan Maass | November 30, 2007 | Page 1

FRENCH RAIL, subway and bus workers ended a crippling strike after 10 days without winning their main demand that the conservative government scrap a plan to end a special retirement plan for half a million public-sector workers.

But French President Nicholas Sarkozy's vow to continue with his free-market crusade is certain to lead to more and bigger confrontations in the future.

Union leaders said they would return to negotiations this week--and would consider a salary increase that the government claims would be compensation for ending a special system allowing workers in the transportation and energy sectors--some of the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs--to collect retirement benefits after 37.5 years of service, instead of the typical 40.

Many rank-and-file workers questioned the union leaders' decision to call off the strike. At mass meetings of rail, subway and bus workers held each evening during the strike, votes in favor of continuing often ran as high as 90 percent. Nevertheless, the union leaders' call to end the strike passed at most union assemblies held last week.

The unions say they will strike again in December if negotiations on the retirement system and other issues fail. But the outcome of this walkout was in contrast to the massive strike in 1995 that forced Sarkozy's predecessor and fellow conservative Jacques Chirac to give up on his plan to scrap the special pension system.

The impact of this November's walkout--which reportedly involved a larger proportion of workers than 1995--was similarly immense. News reports described traffic jammed for miles across France during the morning and evening commutes. Analysts estimated the economic cost at as much as $600 million a day.

The government docked strikers' wages, and some, especially those with families, said they were feeling the strain. "Our wages are so low anyway that we can only shop in discount stores," one striking bus driver in Paris told the Guardian. Nevertheless, he said, "if we have to live off noodles to continue the strike, so be it."

Coinciding with the transportation strike was a one-day general strike by other public-sector workers on November 20 to protest a wage freeze and Sarkozy's plan to eliminate jobs. An estimated 30 percent of France's 5.2 million civil servants took part in the action. In all, some 700,000 people marched in labor demonstrations around the country.

The one-day strike was especially strong among teachers, reflecting anger at low pay and steadily declining living standards that affect all French workers.

Meanwhile, students are fighting a sweeping new law passed this summer that Sarkozy hopes will make French universities more business-friendly by giving administrators more power. On November 22, in response to a nationwide call, students blockaded more than half of France's universities. Action was stirring among high school students as well.

Mass mobilizations by students dealt the conservative government a humiliating defeat in 2006, when it was forced to withdraw a new labor law that would have created a two-year "trial period" for workers under age 26, during which they could be fired without notice or cause.

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THOUGH CAUTIOUS about taking on too many fights at one time, Sarkozy is open about his ultimate aim--to tame the working-class movement and France's traditions of mass protest. During the presidential election campaign earlier this year, he promised to "liquidate the legacy" of the May 1968 student protests and workers' general strike.

"Sarkozy is our [Margaret] Thatcher," Herve Berthomé, a striking Paris bus driver, told the Guardian. "He's ready to serve his class and his cronies, the rich who eat caviar off a golden spoon."

Even if he gets away with overturning the special pensions deal, Sarkozy has many more points ahead on his neoliberal agenda--"reforms" planned for the health care system, labor law and other government programs. Next year, under Sarkozy's plan, one in three public sector workers who retires will not be replaced, leading to a net cut in state jobs of 23,000--11,000 of them in education.

With the rail and bus workers' vote to return to work, Sarkozy and the media are claiming a victory over one of the strongholds of the French workers' movement. They hope they have momentum on their side for a broader assault.

But Sarkozy is attempting to push through neoliberal policies that are highly unpopular with French workers--who, public- and private-sector alike, say that stagnating wages are making it harder and harder to make ends meet.

The conservative, pro-business program for France has been tried before--and it provoked massive struggles against it. November's strike was just the start of a battle to see which side will prevail.

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