“Petrol shortage spreads, only the demos are filling up!” was the headline of France’s satirical paper, Le Canard Enchaine, the day after more than three and a half million had taken to the streets again in 260 towns and cities across the country. This is one twentieth of the whole population of France!
Seventy per cent of the population were supporting the industrial action. In some small towns, up to a third of the population has been on the streets. The number of new layers coming into the movement reflected the depth of feeling on the issue of pensions and much more.
Marie-Jose Douet, a member of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) who, like so many, remembers, as if it was yesterday, participating in the mass revolutionary general strike of 1968, sees the present situation as more analogous to the year before. 1967 was a period of sporadic, if bitter, strikes and street protests across the country, but nothing like the following year when everything stopped, the factories were occupied, the president De Gaulle fled the country and discussions took place everywhere about how to construct a socialist society.
The struggle today is more intense than in 1967. 25% of young people are in favour of “a revolutionary transformation of society” but few, even of the strikers and demonstrators, see a socialist revolution as ‘realistic’. Yet a rapid politicisation is going on amongst workers and young people.
Comparisons are useful – with the sit-in strikes of 1936, the revolutionary upsurge after the second world war, the 1995-6 public sector strike when the country was brought to a halt by the 100% stoppages of rail and underground workers, even the French revolution and the Paris Commune! But there is no exact parallel.
One sociologist, Philip Corcuff may have come closest with the permanent mobilisation of ’68 – 69 in Italy. In fact, there were nearly ten years with elements of pre-revolutionary situations developing in Italian society. There again, the idea of fighting for socialism or communism was more present; the problem was that the large ’communist’ and ’socialist’ parties were not prepared to carry the class struggle through to the elimination of the rotten capitalist governments and the socialist transformation of society.
In France today, there is an even bigger political vacuum, given the pro-capitalist policies of the ex-workers’ parties and the failure of any anti-capitalist party to come to the fore with a programme for socialist change. Even though the movement is not yet strong enough to pose the question of power being taken by the working class and its social allies, the question of who runs society is more and more raised, as both sides have been prepared to conduct a prolonged battle.
The tenacious struggle that has developed between the classes in France has attracted the attention of workers everywhere. After the general strike clashes of the recent period in Greece, Portugal and Spain, what happens in France will deeply affect the mood developing across Europe for a fight against government attacks.
In the past week, both sides in the fight over pension reform have reiterated their determination not to back down. Tuesday (19th) saw another massive response on the sixth national day of strikes and demonstrations in six weeks, Thursday saw talks between the government and the union leaders break down and new days of action called for 28 October and 6 November. As well as the main union federations including the CGT and the CFDT, the CTC which represents administrative ’cadres’ and had pulled out of the fray, came back in. As Jean-Marie Pernot, a wrote in Les Echos last Friday: “Neither the CGT nor the CFDT can get out of the conflict at this stage”.
President Sarkozy and his Interior minister, Hortefeu, have repeated the mantra that there is no going back and accuse a minority of holding the country to ransom. Early on Friday, they used emergency powers to send helmeted riot police in body armour against pickets at an oil refinery near Paris, injuring three. Later that day, as expected, the Senate voted for the ’reforms’. This week, Sarkozy will employ the use of further exceptional constitutional rights of the president to speed the pensions bill through its final approval in the national assembly this coming Thursday.
Both sides appear to be more entrenched than ever but how long can this battle last? Will the half-term holiday, the petrol shortages and the passing of the bill itself now undermine the strength of the movement or will it continue? Associated Press reports that, “The head of the national petroleum industry body, Jean-Louis Schilansky, says it is struggling to import fuel to make up for the shortfall, because strikers are also blockading two key oil terminals, in Le Havre and Marseille. Dozens of tankers remained anchored in the waters off Marseilles, unable to unload.
“’The problem isn’t so much finding the oil; it is getting it in to the country,’ he said. ’If the depots and refineries remain blocked, we will not make it.’” If organised workers in Belgium and the Netherlands take solidarity action,as they have done before, and the special reserves which are said to be able to last weeks and months are blocked, the government is in trouble.
It is the overwhelming strength of feeling from below and the nationwide support for strikes and blockages that have forced the national trade union leaders to continue the action. It is this, too, which has forced the main opposition Socialist Party to move from suggesting their own ’reforms’ to pension entitlements, to promising to reverse Sarkozy’s legislation, after defeating Sarkozy and his party – the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement!) – in the 2012 elections. The SP leader, Aubry, has denounced Sarkozy’s “permanent coup”, paraphrasing the title of a pamphlet by Francois Mitterand against de Gaulle in 1964.
But can the movement last without a leadership from amongst the strikers themselves, co-ordinating the struggle at all levels, and without a clear strategy for victory, on the pensions issue and on the question of who should run society? A special supplement of Egalite, the paper of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) spelled out the approach that is needed – one of a fight to the finish, a real general strike and the linking up of the coordination committees on a local, regional and national level. The fullest of debate and discussion is vital in these bodies – of the concrete steps needed to develop the struggle and also the perspective for socialist change.
Strength of the movement
The lack of a perspective for victory held up by the union leaders means that the struggle can be protracted and, in some senses, a ’proxy’ battle as some call it. The percentage of workers involved in strike action is, on average, about 12%. On the railways it has been more like 30% with big variations by region. Places like Marseilles have seen bigger actions and demonstrations proportionally than elsewhere, but militant traditions have been revived in many areas and discussion of what it all means has been taking place on a higher level than for some time.
The capacity of one or two sections of workers in a modern society – in the docks and the refineries – to strangle a country’s economy quite quickly is a double-edged sword. It can rattle the government with a relatively small number of workers being on strike. On the other hand, it can weaken the movement in terms of the lack of involvement of other layers.
But the movement has up until now remained amazingly strong. The problem of so many days of strike action eating into the wages of a minority has been partially overcome by the organisation of strike support funds for the refinery workers and, in other branches of industry or public services, workers taking it in turns to strike.
Even the scenes of youth ’riots’ in Nanterre and Lyons have not yet undermined support for the revolt against Sarkozy. Far right thugs have tried to attack the youth and also some picket lines, with little success. They could become a more significant threat if the movement declines. There is a widespread understanding that in relation to Lyons, police provacateurs are involved and that, anyway, the youth have a lot to be angry about. School students on their way to their fist demonstration (in Rouen last Thursday) were overheard to say that this was probably a good thing, because “That was the way things started in 1968!”
This time round, compared with then, the heavy battalions of workers have started the struggle and the youth have come in later. Both have sensed their power increase. The combination of these forces has unnerved the government, with some ministers pushing for a harder line to be taken and others fearing that this would only provoke a worse crisis.
In this volatile situation, one incident can cause an explosion and raise the stakes in the struggle of the Sarkozy regime for survival. Already, as the CWI has spelt out previously, there are elements of a pre-revolutionary situation in the France of today. They could develop. On the other hand, they could dissolve into a mood of disappointment. Either way, nothing will be the same after this new mass movement of the French working class, unprecedented in a number of ways.
The same Canard Enchaine quoted above spelt out the choice in front of the increasingly unpopular president of France: “When the petrol gauge is flickering on the red, two solutions are posed to the person at the steering wheel: either drive slowly to consume less and hang on longer or the opposite, press harder on the accelerator to get to the next petrol station faster. Nervy by nature, the driver of the ship of state has evidently chosen the second solution – to put on the pressure.”
He is using his special constitutional powers to push the final stages of the pension reform through parliament, but laws have been passed before but not implemented. Under the pressure of the mass youth movement of 2006 (which also survived a holiday period, at Easter) the attacks on young people’s job security in their first employment contract (CPE) were withdrawn after the law had been passed.
Sarkozy knows that any concession will be seen as proof that ’militancy pays’, and the rest of his programme and his own political future are at stake.
This would-be Bonaparte has decided on brutal tactics to try and break the pickets at the oil refineries. “In the name of the defence of national interests”, he has used emergency measures designed for war-time or military attack to requisition workers to carry out essential tasks. He is aiming to inflict a Thatcher-style defeat on the trade union movement in France. He has already made inroads on the right to strike, in terms of legislating for minimum service in essential services, such as rail transport (one of the reasons that less than 100% of the drivers are out this time round).
The Total refinery at Grandspuits, where the pickets were injured by riot police, is one of the 12 refineries on strike, at the time known as a ’bastion of resistance’. It had been closed for nine days when the raid took place and strikers were forced to go in and open the valves. Interviewed by the TV channel, France 3, CGT delegate, Charles Fulard, said, with tears of anger in his eyes, “We’re not at war! This is not a military airport!…There should be a general strike now!” But the trade union leaders have maintained their intransigence against making such a call, appealing instead for calm!
If they called for a general strike, even of limited duration, this would enthuse workers to go further and put them in the driving seat of a vehicle careering towards dual power and suspending the government in mid-air! They have at no time even considered naming just one day for such action.
Some cartoonists lampoon Sarkozy as a second-rate General de Gaulle figure, as he tries to face down the anger of the millions on the streets. The powerful general, who sent riot police against the youth, and faced down the 10-million strong general strike ended up as a discredited figure, of no further use to the ruling class. 2010 is not 1968. There is not a clear socialist consciousness amongst the participants, in the absence of any mass party calling for support for a socialist programme. Everyone has a clear idea of what they do not want – that is, the hated pension reform. More and more want an end to the government of the arrogant and dictatorial Sarkozy and his ministers, who defend the very rich while attacking the rest of the population.
The third week of October was expected to be decisive. Sarkozy jibed that the movement was ’running out of steam’. But the scale and mood of the Tuesday demonstrations showed a clear determination that the Senate vote would not be the end of the struggle and that there was more at stake than the issue of pensions.
There are factors which can weaken the mobilisation temporarily. This weekend saw the start of the ’All Saints’ holiday. Schools, colleges and universities are closed and many workers are trying to take some days of holiday. Few will be able to travel far. Train drivers are amongst those renewing their strikes each day. Some workers on the buses and underground are taking strike action or organising to block lines and roundabouts. Lorry-drivers are driving slowly on the motorways – doing ‘snails’.
There is also the gradual drying up of the petrol stations as workers at oil depots continue their all-out action against the attack on their retirement rights. Another sign of the strength of feeling against the Sarkozy government and the support for the movement is that, for the moment, there is amazingly little or no hostility towards these workers. A TF1 tele-journalist commented, at the end of a hectic week, that, “20% are going on holiday, the rest are just staying philosophical!”.
If the disruption continues with no prospect of victory, the mood can change, but the day after this week’s mass demonstrations, one poll was published which showed that six out of every ten French people wanted the fight to continue. This must include some who voted for Sarkozy in the last election. The latest IFOP poll found only 5% of people now fully support Sarkozy and just another 24% were ‘somewhat’ behind him.
On the demo
On last Tuesday’s Paris demonstration were two friends, Jason and Karim – non-unionised, technicians in the building sector and out on an anti-government protest for the first time in their lives. They had been come out to prove Sarkozy wrong: “The movement has not ’run out of steam’. He is juggling with the figures”, said Jason. “I voted for him. Like many, I believed his promises of gaining more, if we worked more. Now I regret it. The 35 hour week is something we have to have, for time to rest, be with the family etc. I am happy to vote for the postman Besancenot (of the New Anti-capitalist Party) next time.”
The massive demonstration was indeed a confident and determined expression by a third of a million marchers of a deeply felt and widespread anger against Sarkozy and his policies. There is a strong feeling of the need to maintain this unity to defeat him, now and at the next election.
With their banners and placards, fire-crackers and flares, whistles and balloons the workers march and the young people dance or do the stop-and-start surge all the way from Place d’Italie to Les Invalides five kilometres away. With each organised union contingent there are lorries and vans – some with loud-speakers blaring out music chants and revolutionary songs, some selling hot food and hot and cold drinks, including the demo favourite – mojito – a wine-based cocktail.
Led by the heroic petrol refinery workers were the solid ranks of the train drivers, carworkers, telecomm and postal workers, teachers and public service workers, electricity and gas workers, hospital workers – becoming more and more prominent in the struggle. Alongside these more ’traditional’ groups of organised workers were the ’precarious’ (casual) workers, the ’sans-papiers’ (un-documented immigrant workers) and self-employed as well as not a few pensioners, some even in their 80s walking the whole route. Some of the last contingents in the march had waited for more than four hours before even beginning to move off.
As this extraordinarily tenacious movement has continued, workers have been joined on the demonstrations by increasing numbers of youth – students of Lycees (secondary schools) and universities. Amongst the liveliest and most vociferous contingents, they have taken up the chants of the big (and victorious) movement against the CPE (…….) five years ago, when most of them were too young to have been actively involved. One of the favourites is: “Youth in the galley, the old in penury. This society is not wanted!”
School and university strikes
University occupations began to spread last week. October 21st was a day of action called by the student union UNEF. In Rouen, for example, their contingents were joined by workers and Lycee students from across the city and surrounding areas who have already been taking action. There were also workers from Renault Cleon, from the port and from the rail depot at Sotteville. The Lycee contingents were impressive.
The secondary schools are often ’blocked’ by those who have decided to strike, even though this is often a minority. Teachers, like many sections of workers, and the pupils, hold meetings (General Assemblies – ’AG’s) each day. They discuss and decide on continuing or not continuing their strike action. They can be a small minority, as few as three or four teachers in one school, but they have the respect and support of many more who feel they cannot afford to strike for a long period of time.
Those pupils who have decided to take action then picket the gates of the school and try to make sure it does not function. Sometimes they form physical blockades. The members of Gauche Revolutionnaire in Rouen, who are actively leading the youth of that city, feel strongly that it is better to convince than to block. But if ’blockades’ keep the schools closed, that in itself makes their fellow students think about the issues and what the future holds for them. (Many of the mobilisations have been called by means of text and internet communication, facilitating the organisation of a day of action even in the holiday period.)
It may seem strange that young people are so concerned about the raising of the retirement age (by two years to 62) or the extension of the age of reaching the full pension to 67. But, as they scrawl on sheets and banners for demonstrations and blockades:“Retirement is the concern of the young”. The more older people stay on in work, the fewer job opportunities there will be for them.
After decades of high unemployment among under 25 year-olds, the figure has gone up in the last two years by 17%. An OECD report last year stated that, “Youth employment prospects are a critical issue in France. Even before the onset of the current economic downturn, [it] …was already significantly above the OECD average. During the downturn it has increased more than twice the overall unemployment rate and … almost one youth in four was jobless compared with one in ten among all workers.”
Perspective and programme for the struggle
This current persistent wave of strikes and demonstrations is taking place at a time of the biggest downturn in the world economy since the thirties. As the British Guardian pointed out in an editorial on 23 October, this marks a major difference in the background to the events of May ’68 and those of today. “In ’68 the protest by workers and students erupted after a prolonged period of unprecedented economic growth”. And this is one of the main factors behind its durability.
Those manning the pickets in the early hours of the morning, those participating in the strikes and demonstrations and the rest of the population know that this is only the beginning of what the government has in store for them if they are defeated on this issue. As an article in Egalite, the paper of Gauche Revolutionnaire, on sale on the demonstrations, says, under the headline ’General strike on the agenda’: “After the retirement [cuts], there are the attacks on social security and on the labour contracts, the budget cuts to public services, ever-rising unemployment, and waves of redundancies…So a defeat on the retirement issue is unimaginable for the Sarkozy government as that would paralyse [its ability to] inflict all the foul blows to come.”
Alex explains, in between dawn pickets, city-wide meetings and mobilisations: “This explains why the strikes and demos have continued with such intensity and will start up again even if there are pauses”. They have gone beyond the immediate issue of the pension reform to express a desire to get rid of Sarkozy and his ministers, if not yet the capitalist system he represents.
On the basis of capitalism, in fact, the massive gap in the pensions fund cannot be filled. Huge funds have been paid to the banks and should be paid back. The ideas of taxing the rich and making the bankers pay up are popular.
Unfortunately, however, if a government did agree to levy taxes on the rich and take action against the banks on a sufficient scale to fill the gaps in public spending, the rich would just shut up shop and take their ill-gotten capital elsewhere. It is their crisis and they want the workers and youth to pay. Only public ownership of the major industries and banks, under workers’ control and a plan drawn up and managed by elected representatives of the working class, will see enough resources for adequate pensions at 60 and guarantee jobs for all youth at a decent, minimum wage.
Political parties’ responses
The Communist Party in France is a shadow of the party it was in the inter-war period. It still pays ample homage to the power of the workers’ movement, without arguing the case for socialist or communist change, let alone a strategy for achieving it.
During the movement, the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) has been visible on the mass demonstrations and it appeals to workers’ desire for unity on the left. But their leader is made fun of by the mass media (in a way that Besancenot is not) and its slogans are limited to ’Get them all to go; citizens revolution, quickly!’, ’Tax profits!’, and ’Parti de Gauche – ecology, socialism, republic!’. Having broken from the Socialist Party, this organisation offers no real political alternative to them or perspective for developing the movement.
The New Anti-capitalist Party launched over a year ago has failed to take advantage of the tidal wave of feeling against the system and of the massive popularity of its spokesperson, Besancenot. He got 56% in a recent popularity poll, representing in workers’ minds what a leader should be – an ordinary worker like them, expressing ideas about changing the system. But even as the situation intensifies Besancenot is limiting himself to calling for “more radical action”.
Many of the NPA’s members are very active in helping to picket oil depots and blockade important round-abouts at all times of the day and night. But there is no initiative from the top of the NPA to build a mass working class party that can channel the anger and dissatisfaction of France’s workers and youth into a challenge against capitalism, just at a time when the whole system is on the ropes.
They confine themselves to an abstract call for a general strike, with no programme for how to make it successful in terms of either the immediate demands on the pension reform or for bringing down the government. This is in spite of the efforts of the Gauche Revolutionnaire current and others to change the course of the party.
The situation in France remains extremely volatile. It could explode into a movement even more powerful than that of 1968. At present it is like a slow-burning fuse that could alternately splutter and pause over a protracted period of time. If it is temporarily defeated on the retirement issue, it can flare up again over the other attacks in store for the working class of France, as elsewhere in Europe. Either way, the urgent task is posed of building a mass workers’ party with a leadership prepared to take the movement onto the road of socialist transformation.
Juliane Charton, 17, from the Balzac Lycée in Tours, hoping to read history and politics at the ’Sciences Po’ university in Paris, told the English Sunday paper, The Observer : ’’The government says there is not enough money for pensions, but it is a political choice where to look for it. If they did away with the many exemptions given to employers and bosses and imposed higher taxes on those who make billions every year it would raise in the region of €72bn, when the pension system needs €30bn.’’
Also on the Observer web-site (24 October) an electrician in the building industry says: ”If this law is passed it will mean that life for the ordinary labourer, who is already tired and worn out by years of hard manual work, will just be more misery. They argue we have to work longer because we are living longer, but I say we are living longer because of the hard-won social conditions and benefits that were fought for. If we no longer have them, who is to say that life expectancy will not fall, as it has in Russia?”