The struggle is far from over

October 25, 2010

Weeks of militant protests, strikes and blockades across France brought much of the country to a standstill in opposition to a proposal by President Nicolas Sarkozy to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age to guarantee a full pension from 65 to 67.

On October 22, France's Senate voted to approve the legislation, the last hurdle in parliament to the proposal becoming law. But this fight for the future of French workers isn't over. The country's main union federations have called another one-day nationwide strike and day of action this week, on October 28. And since the demonstrations have relied on the widespread participation of rank-and-file workers and students, more mobilizations could be on the horizon.

Sandra Demarcq is a member of the executive committee of the New Anti-Capitalist Party--know by the initials NPA in French--and a part of the leadership of the Fourth International. Here, we reprint an article written for International Viewpoint in the days before the Senate vote.

SINCE LAST May, the situation in France has been marked by mobilizations against the pension law. Day of action after day of action, the movement against pension reform continues to develop and put down roots. It is the confirmation of a mass movement that is rejecting not only pension reform, but President Nicolas Sarkozy's anti-social, racist and authoritarian policies as a whole, as well as the injustices accentuated by the economic crisis, both among the young and the wage earners.

That is why the demonstrations aren't shrinking and are even beating records--in particular those on October 12 and 19 when 3.5 million people took to the streets. The gatherings are increasingly combative and radical. The private sector is highly mobilized, and now youth (at this stage, essentially high school students) have also joined the protests. The youth have come to understand that their access to jobs in the short term and to full pensions and health benefits were seriously compromised by this reform.

Protesters in Paris continue mass mobilizations against Nicolas Sarkozy's pension "reform"
Protesters in Paris continue mass mobilizations against Nicolas Sarkozy's pension "reform"

Little by little, the environment has changed, and many of us--very many--think that victory is possible, and that we can defeat Sarkozy. Already, at this stage of the mobilization, the government has lost the battle of public opinion. Seventy percent of the population support the protests and oppose this reform. Today, the majority of workers, those in precarious jobs and youth know that the question of pensions is neither a demographic question nor one of funding, as the government has tried to have us believe for some months.

The strike has little by little become a feature of the landscape. With each day of strikes and demonstrations, it becomes increasingly obvious to numerous sectors that staggered days of actions weren't enough to defeat the government.

In fact, ongoing strike action has never been so much discussed in all sectors of activity as in recent weeks, to the point that 61 percent of those polled favor prolonged strikes. The problem is the leaders of the trade union confederations who, even if they are pushed by the rank and file to continue, make sure they avoid calling for a general strike.

SINCE THE beginning of the movement, trade union unity has undoubtedly been an asset, a point of support in the success of the days of strikes and demonstrations. But the inter-union coordination hasn't called for a major social confrontation with the government, and no longer demands the withdrawal of the draft legislation, instead proposing new negotiations and amendments.

The key sectors of the economy, however, have decided to launch or broaden prolonged strikes. This is the case, for example, with the rail workers, EDF centers and refineries. In the latter sector, this has not been seen since May 1968. Since October 14, the 13 refineries are taking ongoing strike action, with a total halt in the installation and shipping of fuel to service stations and depots. The strike is huge, renewed with virtual unanimity.

This movement is on the move everywhere, with new initiatives, blockade actions (toll points, roads, airports, industrial zones and so on) and local demonstrations taking place every day in a unitary and inter-professional fashion. Mass meetings of the different mobilized sectors are also taking place every day. The meetings were small at the beginning, and have now grown increasingly significant.

But it should also be noted that if there are numerous strikes here and there in the public as in the private sector, ongoing action remains still too scattered and a minority phenomenon, and the rate of strikes during the national strike days is high but not extraordinary.

For some days, and in particular since the day of strikes and demonstrations on October 19, young people have fully participated in the mobilization, organizing large and dynamic contingents in protests and blockades at many high schools. There is a determination and politicization here that wasn't there in previous mobilizations.

The more they are said to be manipulated and the more their right to demonstrate is contested, the more their determination grows. The mobilization in the universities is taking off, little by little. It is the big issue in the coming days, on the eve of the school holidays.

Faced with this situation, the right, the employers, the government and Sarkozy remain determined to defend this unjust pension reform. Sarkozy is intent on a test of strength. The use of force is obvious, as shown by police intervention against the refinery strikers or against the high school students, strong-arm tactics in parliament and the rejection of any discussion, even with the most moderate union leaders.

Their determination is understandable since this reform is at the heart of their policy of austerity, in which they want to ensure the crisis is paid for by those who aren't responsible for it. Success in raising the pension age will boost the financial markets, but it's also an opportunity to change the power relations and the distribution of wealth in favor of the richest.

It is also a chance to get rid of the "social and fiscal burden" which is the legacy of struggles of the past and to bring the most resistant sectors to their knees. The key element for Sarkozy is also to rally his own camp some months prior to the presidential election. However, he is still far from victory, and he has not broken or silenced the resistance.

THE BREADTH of this movement indicates the possibility of defeating the government. That is why the overall unity of the social and political left in this struggle is imperative. That is the meaning of the commitment of the NPA in all the unitary and political initiatives allowing regroupment of our forces, and in particular through the national collective initiated by the Fondation Copernic and Attac.

But this unity around the slogan "pensions at 60 and withdrawal of the draft law" does not hide certain disagreements on the basis and on the strategy of action, in particular with the Socialist Party. The latter defends the pension age of 60 but voted with the deputies of the right on increasing the number of annuities to 41.5, which in fact destroys the idea of defending the pension at 60.

Also faced with the growing demonstration, we prepare for the 2012 presidential election. When there are divergences with the left of the left, in particular with the Parti de Gauche of Jean-Luc Melechon, they concern essentially action strategy. The latter defends the immediate perspective of a referendum which would shift the mobilization from the street to the institutional level at a time when the social test of forces is still before us!

The NPA has appeared since the beginning of the mobilization as a party organizing struggle, seeking unity around political objectives and demands: the withdrawal and undoubtedly now the abrogation of the law and the resignation of those responsible for the social crisis, Sarkozy and [Labor Minister Eric] Woerth. We also develop independent, anti-capitalist perspectives though an emergency social and political plan to beat the crisis.

The coming days will be decisive. The law will be voted through but that will not silence or halt this mobilization because for all those who are today on the streets, on strike, this regime is illegitimate. Also, we know that a law that is enacted can be withdrawn in this country--this has already happened with the First Employment Contract [Contrat Première embauche] in 2007.

One to watch, then...

First published at the International Viewpoint Online.

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