French lessons

October 27, 2010

The lessons of the struggle against Sarkozy's pension "reform" apply beyond France.

THE FRENCH revolt against austerity has transformed politics in France--and it has the potential to do the same across Europe and beyond.

The relentless international drive to force down working-class living standards has run smack into a united and determined working class with one of the most militant traditions in the world.

For weeks, France has been roiled by strikes, street protests, road blockades and student walkouts organized against President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal for pension "reform." Even after the legislation passed its final vote in the French parliament, the demonstrations continued, and the country's unions were backing two further nationwide days of strikes and action, on October 28 and November 6.

Sarkozy's popularity has plunged to an all-time low for a French president of 29 percent, and the protest movement against pension "reform" has been steadily supported by around 70 percent of the population.

A few months ago, Sarkozy was bolstering his standing with a mass deportation of Roma immigrants and a law banning the wearing of the hiqab or burqa by Muslim women. But in a matter of several weeks, the rebellion of French workers and students has halted Sarkozy's momentum and replaced the ugly rightward drift in French politics with a message of working-class power, unity and solidarity.

On the march in Paris against Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform law
On the march in Paris against Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform law (Rafael Lopez)

These developments hold lessons for workers and the left across Europe and in other countries--including the U.S., where the pressure on working-class living standards is severe, and the right wing and its campaigns against Muslims, immigrants and LGBT rights have rapidly come to dominate national politics.

As France shows, a united working-class struggle can counter the politics of austerity and scapegoating just as rapidly.

SARKOZY'S PUSH to raise France's minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for a full pension from 65 to 67 is just one part of a drive to get French workers to pay for the economic crisis that hit the global economy in 2008.

As in Britain, where a new Conservative Party government plans to slash half a million jobs and cut $130 billion in public spending, or in the U.S., where spending reductions at the federal, state and local level have been devastating, France's political establishment is committed to balancing its budget on the backs of ordinary people.

But by attacking the national pension system--in a country where workers have successfully defeated similar proposals in the last few decades--Sarkozy provoked a ferocious battle.

The strikes have brought large parts of the French economy to a standstill--not only on the half-dozen nationwide days of action called by the unions, but increasingly on the days in between, because of rolling walkouts that hit one sector after another.

An estimated 3 million people have participated in demonstrations against pension "reform." The reach of the movement has extended beyond traditional urban strongholds like Paris and Marseille, into dozens upon dozens of smaller cities and towns. At one point, nearly 1,000 of France's 4,300 high schools were on strike, and several universities were shut down by student walkouts.

One of the main targets of the struggle has been France's supplies of oil and fuel--anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the country's gas stations are closed.

Dockworkers went on strike at almost all of the country's ports, leaving oil tankers anchored offshore. Oil workers, supported by other unionists, left-wing organizations and local activists, blockaded refineries and supply facilities. When police attempted to break up these strikes and blockades, workers often carried out tactical retreats--only to set up the blockades again after police left.

The mainstay of the strike movement, as in previous struggles, has been public-sector workers--sanitation workers, teachers, nurses, railway workers and transportation workers. Electrical workers on strike at Électricité de France, the state-run power company, have begun to turn off power to municipalities where Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party is in office--they have also cut power to regional police headquarters.

Of course, anyone reading about France in the U.S. press would know little of this. The international media is parroting the claims of the Sarkozy government that France is in the grip of anarchy--menaced by lawless high school students or thuggish union members. A typical headline from the Associated Press: "Rioters rampage, protesters block French airports."

You'd never know from these articles that the demonstrations which clash with police involve huge numbers of people--in smaller towns, up to 20 or 25 percent of the population, according to the accounts of French socialists. You'd never know that around 70 percent of the French population supports the goal of the strikes and protests--in spite of Sarkozy's propaganda campaign--and that close to two-thirds want the strikes to continue for as long as it takes to get pension "deform" scrapped.

This week, the French establishment has been promoting the idea that life is beginning to return to normal following passage of Sarkozy's pension legislation in the Senate. In fact, some French oil workers have ended their strike, and sanitation workers were reportedly beginning to clear the 9,000 tons of garbage that piled up in the streets of Marseille during the last two weeks.

Unfortunately, leaders of France's main union federations seem to have accepted the logic that once parliament gives approval to the pension legislation, the mass movement will have to accept the new reality and bring protests to a halt.

"Our responsibility as trade unionists is to construct compromises that make sense, and not to threaten the legitimacy of parliament or politics," said Marcel Grignard of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT, by its initials in French). "For the CFDT, the closure of parliamentary debate and the promulgation of the law will create a new situation."

But the intensity of opposition to pension "reform" at the grassroots may stop the union leaders from putting on the brakes.

According to the accounts of French and European socialists, union officials had to be pressured from below at every stage to call protests and walkouts. The strikes and protests would never have spread so far and so fast without the efforts of activists at the rank-and-file level, meeting throughout the summer and fall to plan for new action and to involve growing layers of people in the movement.

In 2006, Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac succeeded in winning passage of the so-called First Employment Contract law (CPE, by its initials in French), which would have created a two-year "trial period" for workers under age 26, when their employers could have fired them more easily.

Chirac signed the act into law at the end of March--but massive protests, led mainly by students, but backed by the unions, continued to build. In the end, Chirac had to rescind the CPE law.

No one can say if Sarkozy's pension "reform" will suffer the same fate, but the president certainly can't celebrate victory yet--and with elections coming in 18 months, he has gone from being widely popular to one of the most hated figures in the history of French politics.

THE LESSONS of this struggle apply beyond the borders of France.

For one thing, at a time when many on the left are pessimistic about the possibilities for change, the French working class has demonstrated anew a basic tenant of Marxism--that a united working-class movement has the economic power to bring the economic system to a halt, and force its demands into the national political debate.

Two years ago, Sarkozy boldly asserted, "These days, when there is a strike in France, no one notices."

He's noticed now.

Second, the center of gravity in French politics has shifted away from Sarkozy's vicious attacks on Muslims and immigrants. The example of solidarity and working-class unity has provided a practical alternative to scapegoating.

Is there something unique about France that this struggle is taking place there, but not in the U.S.?

France does have--in spite of a density of union membership that's actually lower than the U.S.--a working-class movement with a more radical and militant tradition. But the most important factor in that tradition is the series of victories that workers have achieved in the past two decades.

In 1995, then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé introduced a proposal to slash social spending across the board, including changes to the pension system. He provoked a massive struggle, centered in the public sector. Railway and transport workers paralyzed the country, yet the strikes remained widely popular. Juppé was forced to withdraw his proposal, and the days of his right-wing government were numbered.

In 2005, partly in response to then-Interior Minister Sarkozy denouncing immigrant youth as "rabble," an urban revolt exploded in France--with protests and rioting breaking out first in the working-class suburbs of Paris, and then spreading to other cities.

This upheaval set the stage for the demonstrations against the First Employment Contract law in 2006. The rebellion against the CPE led to the creation of mass student organizations in both universities and high schools. When the unions backed the youth struggle with one-day strikes and actions, Chirac and Co. had to back down.

These French lessons will be worth keeping in mind in the U.S. in the coming weeks. The November 2 elections are likely to produce a Republican victory, led by the ugliest right-wing elements of the party. Even if the GOP doesn't retake either house of Congress, we're sure to hear endless hours of media commentary about how America is reverting to its true character as a "center-right" nation, and that the Republicans' racist scapegoating has a broad hearing.

France shows that the conventional wisdom about national politics can change fast--and the key ingredient in that change is the class struggle.

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