Mass strikes in France

Submitted by martin on 12 December, 2019 - 4:36 Author: Luke Neal
French strikes December 2019

There have been mass strikes and a wave of working class protests since Thursday 5 December in France.

According to the police there were over 800,000 demonstrators on Thursday. The marches of strikers on 10 December – attended by 339,000 according to the Interior, or 885,000 in the unions’ estimation – is a show of continuing determination. The CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, MNL, UNEF and UNL have jointly appealed for further strikes on 12 December and on Tuesday 17.

By any measure, there have been powerful strikes in key sectors. The overall mobilisation in workplaces is of a depth and dynamism not seen since the successful struggle of 1995. Participation has been massive in SNCF (national railway) and RATP (Parisian metro and buses), with 4 out of 5 drivers out and stayed out on strike since Thursday. The strength of the walkouts in education, EDF, oil refineries and the civil service (45% strike rate) is notable, in addition to solid actions in post, health and the fire brigade. That said, this is not a general strike; not yet. The question for militants is of how we can position ourselves to extend the self-defense of our class, and guide it in a combative direction, towards a general strike.

Immediately, the battle is over pensions. The government are reforming how they are calculated, moving away from a rate based on the earnings of the final 25 years to a points-based calculation across all working-age life, the rates for which are not even guaranteed. Effectively this means a cut to the pensions of all the public sector, where wages increase within pay scales over time.

And it is a particular affront to anyone who suffers a period of unemployment, interruption, or who moves industry. Blanquer, the Minister of Education, attempted to reassure teachers that the government would set up a minimum monthly pension of 1000 euro for a full career – a serious cut to what they would currently receive. There is a deliberate attempt to frame the reforms in terms of ‘sustainability,’ and of equality – ending the ‘special regimes’ of early retirement. It is in other words levelling down the right to retire before our mid-60s, even in physically demanding industries.

Following the first strike day, Edouard Philippe, the Prime Minister, announced that he was bringing the timetable for the reforms forward, beginning with a detailed announcement of the pension arrangements today, 11 December, allowing for time for the state to assess of the balance of the power between itself and the labour movement. He used the announcement to insist that by 2027, the retirement age will be ‘equalled’ at 64, and clarifying that the measures will only affect those born after 1975. La lutte continue.

The initial strike has been ‘renewed’ and extended towards its third week. At a workplace and industry-level the strike has continued daily in its areas of strength – predominantly transport and energy, as well as pockets of education. Most universities have stayed shut, several having been closed pre-emptively to avoid student occupations. However, what is decisive is not whether there are all-out, uninterrupted strikes in every industry, but the progression of an appetite for the fight, and the convergence of those with it. This is perhaps the greatest chance in 25 years to deepen the movement and its organisation. The railway workers’ slogan, ‘the strike to the strikers,’ reflects these impulses. The slogan’s power can be felt at the solidarity visits to pickets, especially at bus depots, where grévistes in transport combine with other labourers, posties, teachers and radical left students. A comrade’s report of their 4a.m. blockade described it as ‘a very fraternal festive gathering, a little spicy with the tear gas.’

The process of renewing the strike is coming about via strike committees, and general assemblies (AGs) of workplaces and in education. Both bodies are a decisive element in the struggle, holding votes on the crucial issues of renewal and the insistence on the withdrawal of the reforms (rather than concessions to or renegotiation of their terms, as many of the rank-and-file fear the CGT leader Martinez may succumb to). The key word of the movement's core is ‘interpro’ (inter-profession/inter-industry, with the added dynamic of support from the Gilets Jaunes). ‘We start together, we win together’: it must be a movement of all workers. If this holds then the state’s ace card, to divide the movement by concessions to specific professions, may be overcome. There are initiatives to forge common working class solidarity through breaking the distinction of union/non-union member, the growth of the AGs and their presence as the blocs on the demonstrations – rather than the classical ‘each industry, each union under their own banner.’

Local interpro AGs have been making their first steps, bringing together a few dozen to nearly 200 strikers or supporters. In these assemblies, activists from the extreme left can move proposals, for political demands on and beyond the pensions, for regular meetings, for more democracy in organisation. Questions remain over the co-ordination of interpro AGs, whose form does not possess the natural democratic representative structures as does a movement organised by industry. But, as a ginger socialist from Nice observed at yesterday’s demonstration, ‘if this is the form of organisation at the grassroots that the movement is taking in the coming days, it [means of democratic co-ordination] will have to be found.’

Railway strike committees have been elected or established in Lille, Nantes, Strasbourg, and Paris – Austerlitz, Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Saint-Lazare. As of yesterday, they are beginning to turn outward, with appeals to nearby private sector workers. Moreover, such assemblies and committees are engaged in a fight to establish a pole of authority on two fronts. On the one hand this is to found authority against SNCF and RATP managers. Decisions taken must be respected, actions carried out, else their authority will be fragile, and this of course noticed by the bosses; where they are effective, it is felt. Commonly, as with the AG at Gare de Lyon I attended on Monday, a debate on the continuation ends with a demonstration through the station and up to the managers offices, whose inhabitants appear pale and rattled behind the glass and the blinds.

In addition to this race between the dynamism of the movement and the determination of the government, there is a parallel conflict between the rank-and-file and the power of the union structures. As comrades from the Fraction l'Étincelle in the NPA noted, ‘The question of an alternative direction to that of the trade union apparatuses, a direction from the strikers themselves, is of course the key...’

As the unions seem maintain a desire to continue their toughest wrestle with the government in decades, our work is to provide its base, and this alternative, democratic pole within the movement. A week in, offered nothing, there is no reason why this movement cannot grow.


The printed paper carries an abridged version of this article

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