French workers strike back at Sarkozy

Strikes and demonstrations are rocking France as union federations join with students and left-wing activists for mass protests against a planned "reform" of the country' pension system championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Last week saw the two more national days of action honored by all the country's main unions. On one of the days, October 12, more than 3 million joined a one-day general strike call. However, some groups of workers are continuing their actions between days of action, deciding day by day whether they will keep striking.

The strikes are hitting hard across the whole economy, but the biggest threat right now are the oil workers, one of the best-paid section of the French working class, whose actions at port facilities and the country's 12 refineries are causing shortages of gas and diesel fuel. Charles de Gaulle International Airport will run out of fuel early this week if the strike keeps up, grounding planes at the country's main airport.

The protests are targeting an overhaul of the country's pension system that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The pension proposal is the brainchild of Sarkozy and is expected to come up for a final vote in France's parliament by midweek. Another day of action has been called for Tuesday to exert maximum pressure on lawmakers.

John Mullen, an activist in the New Anti-Capitalist Party in the Paris region, wrote the following commentary on how the struggle has developed and what lies ahead.

Workers and students march through Paris during a day of action against pension "reform" in mid-October (philippe grangeaud)Workers and students march through Paris during a day of action against pension "reform" in mid-October (philippe grangeaud)

CLASS STRUGGLE is hitting France in a big way. Tuesday, October 12, and Saturday October 16 were the seventh and eighth days of action to defend retirement pensions.

Demonstrators in their thousands ran down the Paris boulevards on Saturday, chanting "All together, general strike!" On both days, there were more than 200 demonstrations in cities across France, along with mass strikes in transportation, electricity, oil, airports, telecoms, education and the civil service.

The unions say there were 3.5 million demonstrators on Tuesday. The government says a million and a quarter, but even one of the police staff associations said the government was fiddling the figures.

For the first time, students joined the pensions struggle in large numbers, concerned both about their parents, and that later retirement for older workers will mean fewer jobs for the young. According to polls, 84 percent of 18 to 24 year olds think the strikers are right. "Sarkozy, you're screwed, the youth is on the street," was the chant in Toulouse, a city in the southwest of the country. Two days later, the number of high schools involved in the strike had risen from 200 to 700.

As young people moved into action, government ministers squealed that 15-year-olds were too young to be demonstrating and striking, and that they must be being manipulated. This from a government whose justice minister recently proposed to lower to 12 years old the age at which a young person can be imprisoned for committing a crime!

The movement is not just a series of one-day strikes controlled by union leaders. Since last Wednesday, daily meetings in the most active sectors vote each day on continuing the strike for 24 hours more. Already, all of the 12 oil refineries in France have taken up these "renewable strikes," half of the country's trains are not running, and some libraries and school cafeterias are closed, while in other sectors, hundreds of mass meetings are being held to decide on next steps.

Truck drivers have started blocking industrial zones in solidarity with the movement, despite the fact that they themselves can retire at 55 under a special law. One of the leaders of the drivers pointed out that drivers care about what happens to the support and administrative workers in transport firms--these workers are mostly women and don't get early retirement like the drivers do.

Dockers in Marseilles have walked out, too, and another national day of strikes and demonstrations for everyone is planned for Tuesday, October 19.

Union members make up under 10 percent of French workers, though many millions more vote for union representatives as staff representatives on works committees, and in polls, 53 percent of the population and 60 percent of manual workers say they trust unions. The result of low union density is that most workplaces are only partly unionized, so regular meetings where everyone can express themselves and vote on the strike are essential. Such meetings can also make it harder for union leaders to sell out strikes.

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PUBLIC OPINION is absolutely on our side. Fully 71 percent of the population opposes Sarkozy's "reform," and that support for the movement rises to 87 percent among manual workers and routine office workers. A poll last week even reckoned that two-thirds of the population thought the strike movement needed to get tougher on the government, while 53 percent of the population and 70 percent of manual workers wanted a general strike! This support needs to be transformed into active confidence to strike in those sectors not yet mobilized.

In France, 13 percent of retired people are living in poverty, according to a recent Eurostat survey, as against 17 per cent in Germany, and 30 percent in Britain, where neoliberal "reforms" have gone much further. French workers are determined not to catch up to other countries in the poverty stakes.

But over the last 20 years, pensions have gradually come under attack. The official retirement age is still 60, but a few years back, despite being slowed by strikes, the government managed to force through an increase in the number of years needed to get a full pension. In 1990, 37.5 years was enough; by 2012, you will need 41 years. If you have less than this, they cut a bit off your pension for each "missing" year, unless you retire at 65, in which case you get a full pension.

Sarkozy's new law adds two years to both the official retirement age (making it 62) and to the age needed to guarantee full pension (making it 67).

Sarkozy, who has been weakened by disgusting corruption scandals involving his ministers (including Eric Woerth, the head of pension reform) over the summer, is desperately looking for his "Thatcher moment" of beating the unions--a moment that has eluded recent right-wing governments in France.

In 1995, a month of strikes fought off a drastic attack on pensions. And most famously, in 2006, the "First Employment Contract," voted though by a right-wing government to impose inferior working conditions on young adults under 26 years old, was an unmitigated disaster for the government. After the law had been voted through, a massive student movement backed up by the unions forced the government into a humiliating retreat.

This happening again is Sarkozy's nightmare. He has been quoted recently as saying in private: "As long as the young people don't get involved, I can handle the movement against my pension reform." Traditionally, presidents allow their prime ministers to take the main responsibility for unpopular reforms, and they sack them if the movement in opposition gets too strong. But this time, Sarkozy has put himself in the forefront, a move we hope to make him regret.

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YOU MIGHT think that with such levels of public support, union leaders would pull out all the stops for a general strike, but professional negotiators don't think like that. The main trade union confederations have so far been united about the need for one-day mass strikes, which has made impossible the standard government tactic of luring one confederation to their side with minor concessions, and using this fact in propaganda to reduce public support for the strikers.

But union leaders aren't pushing for renewable strikes and are calling for negotiations, not for the simple defeat of Sarkozy's pension law. The union leaders' banner at the head of Saturday's demonstration read "Pensions, jobs and wages are important to society" when it should have read "General strike to beat Sarkozy." So it will be up to the rank and file to build up to a general strike, though some regional leaders are supporting the idea.

The plummeting support for Sarkozy in the opinion polls and the fact that there are only 18 months left till the next presidential elections has led the Socialist Party to be more active, though far from central, in this movement. They have promised to reinstate retirement at 60 if they are elected in 2012.

The Socialist Party today is like the Labour Party in Britain 20 years ago, divided between a wing that would abandon even weak links with an active workers' movement, and a left wing that sees a mix of parliamentary action and movements on the streets as the best way forward to more social justice. Dominique Strauss Kahn, one of the hopefuls for the Socialist Party presidential candidacy in 2012, is presently director general of the International Monetary Fund, the financial gangsters who are pushing across the world for later retirement and public sector cuts!

The left-reformist Left Party and the Communist Party are actively building the movement, though many activists are being diverted into campaigning for a referendum on the issue of pensions. Since Sarkozy would only grant a referendum if he was terrified by the power of the movement, and if we scare him enough, he will junk his reform anyway, the referendum idea is a waste of time.

Anti-capitalist groups such as the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA, by its French initials) are completely committed to building for a general strike. Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the NAP, said, "We need a 21st century version of May 1968."

So far, Sarkozy has been forced to make minor concessions on his pensions proposals--concerning, for example, women who have taken time off work to raise children. He has also made concessions in other areas, hoping to calm the anger of certain parts of the population--for example, an announced plan to cut housing benefit for students was abandoned. And a few days ago, he announced plans to look again at a whole raft of tax cuts for the rich instituted only three years ago.

But the main battle is still on. Now that the law has been voted through parliament, the stakes are high. The unions are not negotiating--the new law will stand or be broken. If it is broken, Sarkozy is unlike to survive as president beyond the next elections in 2012.

All year, Sarkozy has been using classic divide-and-rule tactics by playing the racist card. Mass expulsions of gypsies and threats to remove French nationality from naturalized immigrants convicted of certain crimes have led to protest movements. Tragically, the passage of a law banning women wearing a "full" Muslim veil from walking the streets was supported by most of the parliamentary left, and the far left remained practically silent, afraid of Islamophobic sentiments among its own supporters.

These racist tactics have had some effect, and racist attacks are on the rise. A sharp defeat for Sarkozy on pensions could help build a fighting left, which could then roll back some of the right's racist ploys and encourage united action on the radical left.

The movement is still on the rise, and last Friday, police thugs attacked high school students in a series of towns across France. In Montreuil, where I live, a high school student is in the hospital having an operation on his eye after police fired plastic bullets at students who were blockading their school.

Only two years ago, Sarkozy could be heard to gloat: "These days, when there is a strike in France, no one notices."

He has been made to notice now, and if a rising wave of strikes can defeat his attack on pensions, it will be a major step forward in the defense of workers in France and an encouragement for workers around the world. Already, Spain's recent general strike and Greece's mass strikes against austerity have shown that European workers are ready to fight.

First published by Socialist Alternative (Australia).