Mass strikes in France: solidarity will beat the cuts!

France
Author: 
Ed Maltby

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.

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One hour in a Paris rail station, Friday 15 October

This might give an impression of how internal labour movement politics plays out in France.

Ed Maltby

In a cafe in a Paris national rail station, while Eurostar passengers struggle past with their luggage, I am met by a comrade from the NPA who does political work at the station. We walk past souvenir shops and hotdog stands to the platform where the general assembly is to take place. Station staff hurry past us towards the meeting point in groups of five or six as we go. The comrade explains a bit of the industrial politics at work here.

There are five unions present at the station - CGT, the majority union, SUD, more left-wing, FO, another left-wing minority union, the CFDT, a big union in France but a minority at this station, and the minority, more 'moderate' union UNSA. There have been a series of strikes at the station in recent years, in which the stodgy, bureaucratic style of the CGT has seen it lose members, mainly younger members, and mainly to SUD but also to FO. The CGT is determined to retain its prestige in this strike.

For that reason, the CGT takes a very dim view of the "organising bureau" which has been elected. This is an attempt to create something like a cross-union strike committee for the workers at the station to take control of the dispute. But the union hierarchies, and in particular the CGT who form the majority at the station are adamant that only unions may run a dispute. Translation: "This is the CGT's patch, so hands off". For that reason the term "organising bureau" has been chosen rather than "strike committee", because the latter carries connotations of political leadership, whereas the former is much more unassuming. The elected head of the organising committee is a comrade from Lutte Ouvriere (LO). The tactic of having an organising bureau is one that LO are trying to apply consistently across industry and this station is one of the few places where they are having real success. The NPA comrade shows me through a door, past some bins and into a yard down by the tracks. The walls are plastered with union posters - SUD, CGT, FO.

The yard is packed out with well over 100 workers. There are union flags, from all the unions but especially the CGT. FO and CFDT members wear tabards. A lot of people are still arriving, jostling through the crowd to stand with their friends or with their union block, slapping colleagues' backs and joking as they go. There is a lot of laughter. A group of younger workers, all wearing SUD stickers, are sat on top of a high wall that juts into the middle of the yard. One of them is wearing aviator shades - he doesn't say much, but he has a big red vuvuzela, which he blows on at moments of high emotion. I am introduced to another SUD member, and a CGT activist, who are on the organising bureau. They tell me that the CGT has really got its act together in order to make sure it can knock the organising bureau on the head.

No PA or reggae music today - the meeting is opened by the chair of the organising bureau (the LO comrade) getting up on a stool in the middle of the crowd to make her speech. She speaks very clearly and precisely, in few words, from meticulous notes. Her manner and appearance are those of a school teacher. Everyone falls silent - she is explaining that the strike is far from over, giving a short list of the industries and workplaces that are on strike. She argues that the movement is beginning, gathering pace, adn that the rail workers have a particular responsibility to the movement, to keep it going and inspire others.

Not to be outdone, the CGT rep doesn't wait to be called, but as soon as the LO comrade is done talking, makes a longer, windier speech with much bellowing and rhetoric that's quite accomplished but sounds like it has been learnt from a book. It turns out over the course of the meeting that everything the CGT rep says is like that - he doesn't open his mouth without prefacing his remarks with some reference to the unity and organisation of the working masses. He gives a much more comprehensive list, with percentages, of other striking workplaces which the CGT organises. FO, UNSA and CFDT reps all make mercifully short speeches, interrupted by police, binmen and a couple of strikebreaking managers pushing through the crowded yard at intervals.

After all the different union reps have spoken, the floor is open. One of the young SUD members sat on the wall stands up and proposes that the whole AG goes and does a tour of the station and talks to scabbing staff: "They're telling lies about us in the press! They're saying the strike is finished, that we're all done - but it's not true! There's more than 100 of us here and I'm proud to look down and see all this - but everyone else should see us too - we should get out there!" The CGT rep speaks up to say that that would be inadmissible, because such a tour of the station would interrupt the agenda of the AG and make everyone late for a barbecue which has been planned for 12 O'Clock with the workers at another nearby rail station. Most of the older workers seem to agree, or at least are undecided - but the two-dozen or so SUD members, especially the young men stood behind me, are in uproar. "It'll only take ten minutes!", cries one, and a brief chant of "ten minutes!" is taken up. The guy in aviators toots his vuvuzela approvingly. Lots of people shout at once - a lot of those in favour of doing a tour of the station mention other sectors apart from the rails - people are keenly aware that if they make themselves more visible that will help the whole strike movement.

A man in an FO tabard climbs up on the wall. He clearly hasn't planned his speech - he stumbles, stutters, shouts, gestures a lot. With great emotion, he tells the crowd, "On Tuesday morning I thought to myself, I don't want to lost all that money and maybe no-one else will come out with us, so perhaps we should just do the one-day strike Tuesday, and come out one hour a day, to make a point - or just wait until the next one-day strike. I thought that - but then I saw all the college students striking. I went to their college, to see their strike - my kids are on strike! They're out, my kids are out for us, and it's not just them. So I decided - I want to be in it with them, too, to the end, so here I am! I had my mind changed by seeing other people go out, and we're out, we're striking, so why don't we go and change some people's minds? There's no point just talking to people who are already striking, anyway."

A woman gets up on the stool to speak. She is very short, so even on a chair she barely stands taller than any o the men around ehr, and for a moment no-one notices. In the uproar her quiet voice is inaudible. But a second later, people around her start hushing all the chatter, and the whole crowd falls dead silent, straining to hear. She says that the rail workers have to be visible, to support the rest of the strike, but they have to go all together or not at all, so there should be a vote on whether to do a tour of the station.

The LO comrade gets up to say that having a barbecue with strikers at the neighbouring station isn't useless as it will give the workers there a boost - and that after all, we have all day to do a tour of the station. On balance, I think she's right. If she wanted to, she could use this issue as a battering ram to beat the CGT rep with. But instead she stresses unity of all the unions and workers in the station and puts it to a vote. The barbecue wins - the tour of the station is for later.

Voting for the continuation of the strike is done very quickly and unanimously. People cheer and let off sound-bombs and light emergency flares, and the guy in the aviators leads the crowd like a vuvuzela-playing Pied Piper, up the road and into the street for the march over to the other station. The young men from SUD are at the front, followed by the organising bureau people. The CGT rep tries to gather everyone behind one banner and have them march in lockstep. But the young workers are running around, joking and leading rowdy chants. A dozen strikers surround a scab bus. They joke with the driver, lying down in front of the bus and pretending to be run over. They pose for a photo with their flags around the bus, and the driver smiles, a bit perplexed. Magnesium ash drops from the flares in big gobbets and leaves a chalky path behind us as we march through the streets and across the concourse of the neighbouring station to meet the workers there. The two groups of strikers film each other on their phones and hug. I bid goodbye to the NPA comrades and look again at the future of the European workers' movement before turning and going to catch my bus back to London.