We are approaching an all-out general strike in France. On Saturday 16 October and again on Tuesday 19th, 3.5 million workers and students demonstrated against the government's pensions reform.
Strikes in transport, oil, logistics and an increasing number of other sectors (including the security guards who deliver cash to shops) are bringing France to a halt. The government plans to use the police to break the strikes causing fuel shortages.
Mass meetings in workplaces every morning discuss the strike and vote to carry it on.
The strike is the result of several factors. The immediate spark is pension cuts. Sarkozy's government wants to raise the age at which one can retire from 60 to 62; and the age at which one can receive a full pension from 65 to 67. It also plans to remove the 'special regimes' under which workers in particularly physically demanding work can retire early.
This is part of a general austerity programme, which includes 7 billion euros' worth of cuts in public sector jobs and wages.
But behind the strikes is a more general "ras-le-bol", which is a French expression meaning "being totally fed up", in this case with France's right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. There is an increasing sense that he must go.
Sarkozy has outraged workers with his claims to be the "French Thatcher" - but also with his racist, brutal campaign of deportation of Roma and travellers from France. The last time Roma, Gypsies and travellers were deported from France en masse was during the Holocaust.
Sarkozy has schemes for improving "national identity". He champions the role of religion in public life, boosting the Catholic church and Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. In France, with its strong secular tradition, this is very controversial.
He wants to promote a right-wing, nationalistic account of French history, starting with reforming the National Archives - workers at the Archives have been occupying the building against these reforms for weeks.
No wonder that rail-workers in Lyon sang "let's throw Sarkozy under a train" last week.
A variety of local, sectoral issues have helped to provoke the strikes. There are many local ongoing disputes over redundancies and wage freezes in both the public and the private sector. Workers see a generalised strike movement as a means by which many scores can be settled.
The mobilisation has been going on since around April, but has only recently achieved "critical mass". The mobilisation has moved from periodic one-day strike actions, into what's called "reconductible" strikes.
A "reconductible" strike is one where workers meet in a mass workplace meeting (called a "general assembly" or "AG") every morning and take a vote on whether to continue the strike or not. This element of local rank-and-file democracy makes the strike more chaotic, more durable, and much more dangerous.
The French revolt is much stronger than the Greek one earlier this year which got so much publicity after a few fire-bombs were thrown on demonstrations in Athens.
The Greek movement was basically a series of one-day strike actions called from above. No strong rank-and-file co-ordination, capable of independent initiative, has been built there - not yet, anyway.
The French union leaderships did not choose the move to "reconductible" strikes of their own free will. They were put under pressure by the massive turn-out on the one-day demonstrations and the fact that continuous strike action was already beginning independently under the pressure of local disputes in oil, ports and chemical sectors.
The call for "reconductible" strikes was a response to that pressure, and to the other pressure imposed by Sarkozy's refusal event to sham negotiations with the union leaderships.
Reconductible strikes became have been used in several big disputes with the government in the last 15 years - 1995, 2003, 2006 and 2007. Not all those movements were successful - but they have created a culture of holding general assemblies as a means of running disputes. This memory has been held and transmitted by socialist and trade union activists.
The move from one-day action to generalised reconductible action started on 12 October and is still ongoing. It was not easy - it was not an army marching to the beat of one drum, going into action at a pre-arranged signal from above. Rather, it was a complicated, chaotic phenomenon, with many small local retreats and little advances, adding up to a confusing, dynamic "big picture" of a movement advancing into a general strike.
The escalation began with certain core sectors - oil, transport, docks, chemicals - and certain core areas like Marseilles.
On Wednesday 13th, things looked difficult. In order for the strike to spread, the core sectors had to stay out. But in order for the core sectors to remain solid, the strikes had to spread.
As of Wednesday 20 October, that impasse has been resolved positively, in the direction of escalation. Most importantly, a political argument was won in workplaces and in general assemblies that strikers in the core sectors of the strike had a responsibility to lead and inspire the rest of the workers' movement.
That idea, fought for by socialists and leftwing trade union activists, is now a deeply held conviction on the national rail network, a strategic sector for the French workers' movement.
Organised, trained, and disciplined revolutionaries embedded in the workers' movement have transmitted the experiences of previous years of struggle to younger workers and won them over politically to fight for a general strike. They have done this by a process of agitation lasting months.
A further factor adding to the health of the strike is the youth movement. Around 2,000 further education colleges are hit by a youth strike, and around 800 of those are physically blockaded, according to the student union UNL. The development of a student strike in universities is happening more slowly, but it is happening. About 400 high schools are on strike, blockaded, or occupied.
The French government is stepping up repression - the CRS riot police are provoking fights and arrests on demonstrations. On Tuesday/Wednesday night 19th/20th, police used violence to lift blockades on three fuel depots overnight, but as of Wednesday morning these blockades had been put back into force by workers and activists.
Sarkozy has ordered the forcible opening of all blockaded fuel depots. But we shall see how he gets on.
The government is set to vote on the pensions reform next week. But activists remember how in 2006 the CPE law [cutting employment rights for young people] was repealed shortly after being passed due to popular pressure. The slogan is, "what the Parliament does, the street can undo".
In transport, the strikes are not 100% solid - around half of trains are running and the number of flights cancelled is not yet clear. "Snail operations" or go-slows by lorries on motorways, are multiplying. But in any case, the strike movement is strong and getting stronger.
If the French working class wins, Sarkozy will in all likelihood be politically incapable of enforcing further austerity measures; and many local disputes will be won.
This is a class battle of global significance. If the austerity programme is halted in France, then one of the pillars of the European Union's drive for a harshly "neo-liberal" resolution of the crisis has been shattered.
The ruling classes of other European countries will be demoralised and disorganised in their own cuts programmes, and the working classes will have been shown in practice how to beat those cuts.
The French revolutionary left did not foresee this movement a year ago. It certainly did not conjure this movement out of nowhere on its own. It has been able to play a large part in shaping the movement politically.
Its cadres have been able to set up general assemblies and strike committees where otherwise none would have existed. They have won the argument in workplaces on the necessity of fighting for a general strike. They have been able, in part, to determine the character and the success of this movement.
That is because the revolutionary left in France, though numerically not that much bigger than in Britain, is qualitatively more embedded in industrial workplaces and union organisations, and less inclined to spend its time chasing after Islamic clerical-fascists (the SWP) or jobs in PCS union officialdom (the SP).
In Britain, we cannot foresee what struggles the next five years of Tory rule will bring. But we too will be surprised, one way or another. We will be put to the test. Either we will be able to make a decisive contribution, as the French revolutionary left has done, or we will not.
The only thing we can do now to help us pass the test is to prepare ourselves - to build our organisation, to educate ourselves, to increase our activity, to focus our activity more on the strategic priority of developing political influence in workplaces and union organisations.
I urge readers who want to be part of that trained, disciplined, socialist element in the British labour movement to join Workers' Liberty today.