Uniting the struggles in France

April 11, 2018

On April 7, rail workers in France began three months of rolling actions with a strike that hammered the national rail system, while Air France canceled one-third of its flights in response to a walkout over pay. These are the latest battles in a brewing conflict between labor and the government of President Emmanuel Macron, elected last spring. Macron is driving through a harsh neoliberal agenda familiar to workers throughout Europe--but the French labor movement has organized for more action, including a March 22 national day of protests jointly called by seven unions.

In this article written after the March 22 strikes, but several weeks before April 7, Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires trade union federation and the New Anti-Capitalist Party, looks at the background to the struggle and what needs to be done to advance the movement. This is an edited and annotated version of an English translation published at International Viewpoint.

THE STRIKES and mobilizations on March 22 were a real success. In the 180 cities where there were demonstrations in response to the call by seven public-service unions, the figures everywhere represented an increase compared to the last time there was a strike of the public sector on October 10, 2017. This time, the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) and the National Federation of Autonomous Union (UNSA) also called for a strike.

The Generation Confederation of Workers (CGT) said more than 500,000 demonstrators participated on March 22, compared to 400,000 on October 10. Similarly, 25,000 railway workers took part in the national demonstration in Paris called by the CGT, the United Democratic Solidarity unions (SUD), UNSA and the CFDT, and 35 percent responded to the strike call by the SUD Railway union and UNSA.

In primary education, half of all teachers were on strike. In public finance, workers participated heavily in the strike--nationally, the figure was more than 40 percent. There was also an increase in the number of strikers among hospital staff. In several cities, there were hospital workers on the demonstrations who had been on strike for several days (for example, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Dijon). The same was true of some postal workers--like in Bordeaux, where 20 post offices had been on strike for two weeks.

Striking rail workers march through the streets of Lyon, France
Striking rail workers march through the streets of Lyon, France (Secteur CGT Cheminots de Lyon | Facebook)

In most cities, youth contingents were present in the demonstrations, along with pensioners and railway workers who could not go to Paris, as well as workers from the private sector, including the chemical and metal industries.

The Common Elements That Stood Out

Obviously, the slogans and demands start from questions that varied from one sector to another. Overall, the government's plan is to cut 120,000 civil servant jobs in the next four years, maintain a wage freeze and attack job security. For railway workers, it was the beginning of privatization that motivated the walkout. For the public sector, it was the dismantling of the civil service and the end of statutory hiring, as well as expected attacks on the pension system. Meanwhile, hospital workers are suffering an ongoing deterioration of working conditions, and teachers are faced with the closure of classes.

Everyone is experiencing a frontal attack on public services, declining budgets for jobs and operations, and a push by the government to bring the country into line with other European countries that have already enforced neoliberal policies. These common points appeared in the demonstrations, even if the timing of the attacks has been different. The government's aim is obviously to try to splinter the fightback, while sucking the union leaderships into a pseudo-dialogue.

Beyond this, the concerns of pensioners and youth have overlapped in their mutual rejection of the policies pursued by the government of President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister Édouard Philippe, which is attacking pensions and housing subsidies, while tightening high school graduation requirements and restricting access to higher education.

Similarly, private-sector workers testified to the attacks carried out by bosses closing workplaces, freezing wages and announcing layoffs, all with the backing of a government that is gutting employers' legal obligations to workers and the means for unions and workers to seek recourse. At the same time, Macron is pursuing a tax policy favoring shareholders and the privileged. Under the government's new reforms, the unemployed will be at higher risk of losing benefits, and will be subject to growing pressure to accept precarious and unskilled employment contracts.

There is, therefore, a climate of social polarization in the aftermath of March 22, with the beginning of a mobilization of different categories of workers alongside high school and university students. Now, the whole question in the coming weeks lies in the ability to build an overall movement capable of winning, which means blocking Macron's policies.

Why Recent Days Have Been Revealing

The government's credibility is falling. Many opinion polls confirm what can be felt all around us in workplaces and on the street: Despite triumphant and arrogant displays by the president--who claimed on March 23 in Brussels that the social movements were not "not of a kind to make him retreat from the commitments made during his campaign"--Macron has scarcely more support than either the conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy nor the neoliberal Socialist Party government of François Hollande had 10 months after their respective elections.

For example, a poll released on March 21 indicated that only 17 percent of people support Macron's policies--this is about the percentage of votes he obtained in the first round of the 2017 presidential election--and 57 percent of those polled have a negative opinion of his policies. In another survey, 55 percent of those asked supported the March 22 strike; this figure rose to 82 percent among public sector workers.

Similarly, two-thirds of those polled consider that the deterioration of public services stems from the government cutting resources. This disapproval is obviously accentuated by Macron's image of being the president of the rich--the CEO of France, as Macron himself wishes to present himself.

The last few days have only reinforced this feeling when Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH [a French multinational luxury goods conglomerate headquartered in Paris]--often presented by Macron as an example of one of the "leaders of the team" that is lifting France upwards--increased his personal fortune by $30 billion in 2017, bringing it to more than $72 billion.

In terms of political tactics, the government's first goal is to avoid a convergence of struggles. Its own self-imposed timetable for pushing through reforms is obviously an advantage: The National Assembly will initiate changes to regulations governing the national railway (SNCF) in early April in order to concentrate the attack against railway workers immediately in the hopes of isolating them. On the other hand, the main attacks against the civil service will be spread out over the following months, punctuated by "informational" meetings with the union leaderships.

The government's propaganda, dutifully relayed by the mass media whose editorial line has been to worship Macron since his election, focuses these days on several points: devaluing the success of March 22, making it seem like a semi-failure, despite evidence to the contrary; secondly, concentrating their blows against the so-called privileges enjoyed by railway workers, who are accused of wanting to disrupt the country for weeks. The media willingly transmits images that reduce demonstrations to violent scenes, just as Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls did during the demonstrations against the neoliberal El Khomri law in 2016.

Finally, the government will try to strangle the possibility of building a movement among students, particularly in the universities. We saw police interventions against young people during the demonstrations on March 22, but the government has gone further, placing the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès II under its control after students protested their department's merger into the School of Engineering, an action synonymous with acceptance requirements. Similarly, the attack by right-wing thugs at the Faculty of Law of Montpellier, with the active complicity of the dean, is part of the same logic.

These Maneuvers Are Intended to Demoralize Workers and Curb Sympathy

However, in the coming days, activists are working hard to bring about a convergence of strikes and actions between different sectors, including overcoming divisions and blockages created by trade union leaderships organized into different confederations.

We must bring about the convergence of movements among youth, employees of the EHPAD [which provides support and services for dependent elderly people] and the public sector, including the post office, public finance, hospitals and, of course, SNCF railway employees.

Beyond all these, we must reach out to workers from the private sector. Common grievances and potential bridges exist, but for them to be put into action, it is necessary for the militant forces in the unions to become conscious of these possibilities and to actually come together, locally and nationally, in each industry and sector. This is especially urgent because, for a number of reasons, we do not have a sufficiently clear plan of action led by the major trade unions, one that might serve as a point of reference for building this convergence.

Nationally, only the CGT has proposed a date for a broad inter-sectoral mobilization, and that's not until April 19--that is to say, almost a month after March 22 and more than two weeks after the beginning of the strike movement at the SNCF scheduled to begin in early April. Worse, it's right in the middle of the Easter school holidays. It is therefore contradictory to say, as CGT General Secretary Philippe Martinez does, that we must raise the pitch, and then propose such a date that does not provide a concrete deadline for the most combative sectors.

Yet Martinez's timidity is nothing compared to the policy of the leadership of the Force Ouvrière union federation (FO). While many federal and local leaders of FO employ combative language, General Secretary Jean-Claude Mailly, for the moment, refuses any prospect of a convergence of struggle. Further, on March 6, he declared that he doubted "the willingness of workers to take the streets in mass numbers in an inter-sectoral movement." For Laurent Berger of the CFDT, the most urgent things is to wait: "The convergence of struggles is not the CFDT's cup of tea." Only Solidaires, which has less weight in the trade union field, has come out clearly for a convergence between public and private sectors.

The inter-union coordinating committee of the civil service that made the call for March 22 is meeting on March 27. On March 30, the Air France inter-union coordinating committee is calling for a strike over wages. On March 31, the inter-union committee of the Carrefour supermarket chain is calling a strike for wage demands and against job cuts. However, the inter-union committee of the EHPAD has not for the moment planned a new date.

Despite this apparent dispersion, all the combative sectors have in mind the date of April 3, the beginning of the strike at the SNCF. Even though the CGT, the CFDT, and UNSA unions of the SNCF advocate a rhythm of two days of for strike every five days, SUD Rail is calling for a vote for an ongoing movement from April 3 onwards.

The inter-union committee of Public Finance Paris (CGT, Solidaires, FO) is calling for a strike on April 3. The same goes for a coordinating committee of CGT hospital workers, which met last Friday (in late March). In several cities, such as Bordeaux, Rouen and Grenoble, April 3 or 4 are on the table as new dates of convergence in general assemblies.

In any case, militant activists understand that the road is not clearly marked out and that it is necessary to go beyond sectoral divisions and union divisions, and not to rely on a calendar that avoids unified struggles. Thus, in the short term, we need to form strong local union coordinating committees, bringing together different sectors that can give confidence to sectors who are on strike and encourage the expansion of the movement. The game is obviously far from being won.

But the really essential element lies in these coordinating bodies. A change of political climate must prevail in the coming days. This convergence should not only be in terms of "solidarity" with the railway workers, but in terms of "bringing everything together"--of a convergent platform for the defense of public services, against the austerity policies of the government that only serve the Chamber of Commerce (MEDEF) while attacking workers.

As regards the political organizations of the left, the call initiated by Olivier Besancenot and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) for unity around the railway workers and all of the public services, rejecting the anti-social policies of the government, was very well received. And in a sign of the times, in recent days, Besancenot has become the most popular personality among left-wing sympathizers in opinion polls, thanks to a language of fighting spirit and unity.

The path is open to weaving a united front bringing together among unions, left parties and associations of social movements, around common demands, a front with a long-term perspective, for a broad convergence, for a general strike to make Macron retreat.

First published in English translation at International Viewpoint.

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