Mass Protest Sweeps France

On Thursday 24 June, about two million workers took to the streets in about 200 cities and towns of France in a national day of action called by the main trade union organisations (CGT, CFDT, CFTC, UNSA, FSU and Solidaires) against the pension reforms. This is the centre-piece of the wave of attacks concocted by the Sarkozy-Fillon government, aimed at slashing up to €100 billion from public spending by 2013. Many capitalist voices, in France and internationally, are already pushing for ‘supplementary efforts’, arguing that such a move remains insufficient.

The ‘demographic’ and ‘deficit’ arguments are used as excuses to impose new burdens on working people and attacks on living standards. At the same time, the CAC 40 (the 40 biggest French private companies quoted on the stock-exchange) made €49 billion in profits last year, and bosses’ contributions (social taxes) are being reduced by €30 billion each year (the equivalent of the deficit of the whole social security system). This shows what all the propaganda about the “unaffordable level of the pensions” is really about.

On the other hand, the government’s credibility is already in a shambles, and ruling circles are concerned about the underlying class battles provoked by this issue. The situation is being exploited by the right-wing Socialist Party (PS) to try to revive a left image in the run up to the presidential elections of 2012, attempting to catch up with this anti-government mood by adopting “defend the pensions” rhetoric. PS first secretary, Martine Aubry, has promised that if her party was elected, they would reverse the current reform. Not only is the PS hypocritical, but it has also a short memory: it was the same Martine Aubry who, earlier this year, proposed the delaying of the retirement age to 62!

Spectre of the 1995 general strike

The turnout on Thursday’s protests sharply exceeded that of the last national day of action which took place on 27 May. This represents the biggest protests since the 2.5 and 3 million-strong demonstrations in January and March of last year.

The protests were particularly strong in Marseilles (120,000) and Paris (130,000). But in a lot of smaller cities, the number of demonstrators was considerably bigger, often more than doubling the participation since last May’s demonstrations. For instance, in Brest (Brittany, North-West), about 22,000 demonstrated, compared to a previous 7,000. In Besancon (Franche-Comté, North-East), there were even more people on the streets than during the battle against the CPE in 2006. According to figures from the police, the demo in Rennes (Brittany) was six times bigger than in May, and in Pamiers (Midi-Pyrénées, South West), it was the biggest demonstration since 1995’s movement (the three weeks of massive public sector strikes which forced the then Alain Juppé’s government to back down on its retirement reform).

The level of strikes was much higher than during last month’s day of action as well. This was particularly the case in the education sector (1 out of 3 school teachers were on strike, forcing the closure of a large number of schools) and in public transport, where thousands of workers walked off the job, hitting train, metro and bus services. Nearly 20% went on strike in this sector, (in comparison with under 12% last May), with a 40% high in the SCNF, the national railway company. Private sector staff took strike action too, and delegations of workers from private companies were generally represented much more in the different demonstrations than in May.

The mood was very combative. Numerous reports gave a picture of a more militant spirit, having notably been triggered by the announcement by the government, on the 16 June, of the detailed measures involved in its plan. This includes the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62, and forcing employees to work longer to qualify for their state pension.

Some slogans “reminded us of the slogans of the strikes of 1995”, said Yann, a member of Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI in France) present in the demonstration in Nancy. Leila, in Rouen, commented “The march was bigger, younger, with more women involved and more dynamic than on May 27th. The workers showed they were there to prepare the comeback in September. The slogans calling for continuing the struggle were numerous.”

A clear majority of French people oppose this ‘reform’ of the pensions. An opinion poll published on the day of the protest showed that 68% of the French population either supported or sympathised with the strike. Everybody understands the profoundly regressive character of such a reform, and the fact that this pension reform is only the opening gate towards a more general offensive from the capitalists to reduce once again the working class’ “share of the cake”.

On top of the pensions attack a whole austerity plan is on its way and will probably be announced next autumn. The rapid pace imposed by the government indicates that while Sarkozy wants to appear inflexible, at the same time the ruling classes dread a new all-out general strike like that of December 1995.

Union leaders’ reluctance to take decisive action

Yet, the union leadership strategy is holding back the potential for developing the movement. Despite being massive, Thursday’s demonstrations are still less than the 3 million reached at the peak of the mobilisations in March 2009. This shows that, even among the layer of workers having initially demonstrated their readiness for struggle last year, certain scepticism still exists towards plunging again into battle, due to the lack of results from these mobilisations. A worker interviewed in the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ was quoted as saying: “These demonstrations don’t mean that French people will win. They have seen what happened last year: massive demonstrations, but for what result?”

This points to the failure of the union leadership in terms of organising the anger in a militant and uncompromising manner, not simply by going into repeated demonstrations once every month without clear objectives. The short-sighted outlook of the union leaders, who do not see the mobilisations as part of a coherent strategy to defeat the government, but mainly as a means to evacuate the pressure coming from their own ranks, is an obstacle on the road to building a powerful movement to resist effectively the new offensive from the capitalist class and its government.

The attitude of the trade union leadership contrasts sharply with the expectations of most workers. This last point was illustrated by a poll published by BVA on the 10th of June, asking “which form of action do you consider as the most effective in order to have an impact on the pensions’ reform?”. 13% had ‘no opinion’, 20% answered ‘repeated demonstrations’, and 67% answered ‘general strike’. Thursday’s actions have provided a new barometer of anger, indicating that radicalisation is mounting among the working class, in both the public and private sectors, to take up the issue and to organise a proper fight back. A qualitative step has been reached in the building of momentum against the capitalists and Sarkozy. This must be seized upon!

The mounting social discontent is alarming the French ruling class to such an extent that right-wing politicians are systematically refusing to even use the word “austerity”, refuting anyone who does. The government’s authority is already at stake. Sarkozy is at a record low in the opinion polls, and hence he is always repeating that he wants to keep up the ‘social dialogue’ with the trade unions. On the other hand, both Bernard Thibault and Francois Chérèque, general secretaries of the CGT and of the CFDT repectively, are demanding a ‘re-writing’ of the reform rather than its rejection. Both are waiting for some kind of concessions from the government in order to stop the struggle and try to avoid an ‘uncontrollable’ general movement.

All this could lay the basis for the working class being ‘stabbed in the back’ if it doesn’t prepare right now the instruments to organise, structure and control its own struggle. The government is entertaining the desperate hope that the summer holidays can be used to scale down social protests. Workers and young people must make sure it is wrong.

The mobilisation can only develop if it has a specific purpose : the entire withdrawal of the reform. Such an idea must be prepared throughout the Summer, discussed in the workplaces, publicised in meetings, etc. Some combative workers’ unions, such as the CGT-Goodyear, have called for a general strike to defeat the government policies. Such calls should be discussed in the union local branches.

The success of Thursday’s mobilisations is only a foretaste of what could be achieved in the future, but also of what will be needed to defeat this new onslaught against living and working conditions. Trade union and political activists must put forward from now on the need to build on this success, by preparing the next national day of mass protests and strikes due for September, 7th , which could be used as a step towards the building of a an all-out and renewable general strike, supported by strong and democratically-organised structures from below involving all workers – public and private sector – and youth together. In the autumn, new important social battles will also take place in other European countries, where the working class and the poor are facing attacks of a similar scale. This will offer important opportunities to take initiatives to link up the struggles in France with what’s happening outside, in the preparation of a powerful transnational response from the working class against the gigantic austerity agenda hanging over the whole Europe.

Only a determined struggle, armed with a clear political programme, can defeat the attacks of Sarkozy’s government and its big business backers. The NPA could play an important role to push in this direction. The members of Gauche Révolutionnaire (Sister party of the Socialist Party in France) are involved in the NPA with the purpose of building it as a mass, independent, and socialist voice for the French working class.