By Vicki Morris
Y'en a ras le bol
De ces guignols
Qui ferment les usines,
Qui ferment les ecoles!
We've had enough
Of these clowns
Who close the factories,
And shut the schools down!
These chants broke out from the crowd as they waited for the speech of Arlette Laguiller at the fete of Lutte Ouvriere (LO), 7-9 June.
Arlette is the spokesperson for the Trotskyist group. Her speech is always received warmly (the food and other stands close for a quarter of an hour each day of the fete while she delivers her speech).
This year the fete was well attended (maybe 20,000) but seemed quieter than last time it was held, in 2001. (LO missed a year being busy with Arlette's campaign in the presidential election.)
It felt, this year, as though the main event was elsewhere. As it is.
People come to the fete from Paris and Paris transport is badly disrupted by the strikes against proposed pension "reforms". This year it was, quite simply, difficult to get to the fete.
The chants at the top of this article, one could tell, were not made up for the day but have been learnt on the demonstrations against pension reforms.
The irony is that LO does not call for "general strike" Clearly, increasingly, the "movement" does.
LO argues instead for "generalisation", spreading the strikes, through the grassroots, in each town, from workplace to workplace, from the public to the private sector.
Calling for a general strike, they say, is a call for the leaders of the trade unions and union federations to call a general strike, which will only reinforce the grip of the trade union leaders on the movement.
Well, it is true that the union leaders, like Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT federation, and Marc Blondel, leader of Force Ouvriere, seek to shape the movement. But the idea of the need for a general strike is widespread. It looks like being the only way to beat the government and stop its planned massive attacks on pensions. Marc Blondel, who opposed the movement to defend the pension becoming 'political', now says that a cross-sector general strike is needed.
The government introduced its legislation on Tuesday 10 June. The unions called another day of cross-sector action, strikes and demonstrations - the sixth - and their call has been massively heeded. There were clashes with the police in Paris (and as I write, they seem still to be going on).
The government has promised not to curtail discussion in parliament, even though with its big majority, a vote is a formality. 8,500 amendments have been tabled to the pensions bill (6,500 by the Communist Party) but the legislation will not be beaten in parliament. It will be beaten in the streets and in the workplaces.
Will the government be moved? They want a showdown. They know it will take a showdown for them to carry out what their critics are calling the "Thatcherisation" of French society. But it might be a more or less quick showdown. They have now made a conciliatory gesture towards the education unions.
On Tuesday also, the education unions who, besides the pension issue, oppose government proposals for education, met ministers. After the meeting one union leader said that the two sides had taken "a step toward each other". The government will not withdraw its proposals. It will carry them through more slowly. It will make more money available to introduce the new professional category of "assistants d'éducation".
Rank and file teachers have been threatening to boycott or disrupt the tests for the baccalaureate, due to begin on 12 June. The union leaders say that strikes will continue but that the bac will not be targetted.
This is the most massive social mobilisation in France since May 1968. New links are being forged by trade unionists across sectors, including between public and private sector workers, and lessons learned in how to organise.
Here is one moving example - a report from the Paris train system (RATP) - of what has been worrying the government:
"...in the depots, the general assemblies and the pickets around the stations from where the trains leave, a new militant solidarity is being built between RATP strikers and striking education workers. For three days now, dozens and dozens of teachers from the Paris region have been setting their alarm clocks for 4 o'clock in the morning in order to be at the depots that line the rail routes and in the Tube/bus depots before 5 o'clock, at the request of the RATP strikers, in order to discuss with possible non-strikers and to convince them not to work. The pickets (who for the time being do not stand in the way of a train when the driver really, really wants to go) are proving very effective."
[Benoit Mely in "Bulletin pour la greve interpro", from Comite Syndicaliste Revolutionnaire]
The train drivers of the CGT are having trouble with other drivers who are still working because they belong to an "autonomous" union with a special pensions regime that the bosses say they will not touch. The teachers have been on strike for weeks and seemed to the train drivers the perfect tribunes for the labour movement and for the idea of solidarity.
Sources of information
- The newsletter e-liaisons is appearing almost daily and gives an excellent round-up (for those who read French!) of news reports, analysis and texts reproduced from the strikers themselves. To subscribe send a blank email to e-Liaisonsfirstname.lastname@example.org
- Indymedia: http://france.indymedia.org/
- Lutte Ouvriere: http://www.lutte-ouvriere.org/
- Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire (LCR): http://www.lcr-rouge.org/ - the LCR has postponed its congress, due to take place at the end of June, until October-November to take account of events.