France: An explosive situation; Huge protests against pension law
September 7 rally of 1.1 million in Paris after the pension changes were presented in parliament by Sarkozy’s labour minister. Photo: Wagingnonviolence.org.
By Sandra Demarcq
October 11, 2010 -- International Viewpoint -- The political situation in France is dominated by the mobilisations against the proposed "reform" of the pension system [that will dramatically reduce the right of workers to access pensions]. This is at the heart of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s austerity policy. Although it is presented as an obvious demographic necessity, it is meeting increasing opposition in public opinion.
The opposition has been growing since the start of the mass mobilisations in May and the first national day of action in June. Since the beginning of September three days of strikes and demonstrations (September 7 and 23, and October 2) have brought out 3 million people out on each occasion. The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) trade union federation estimates that 5 million people have participated in strikes and demonstrations since the start.
On each day of action, we have seen that there are more private-sector workers, more young people – even high school students are beginning to mobilise and block their schools – and more radical demands.Popular rejection of Sarkozy’s policies
The battle against the draft law on pensions also shows a massive rejection of the whole politics of Sarkozy. There is not only the question of pensions, numerous sectors are extremely mobilised, on strike on various issues: post offices, hospitals, the nurse-anaesthetists, the dockers ...
Faced with this resistance, the French government is more and more unpopular. These accumulated difficulties are provoking a crisis within the right.
To try to reassert his control, Sarkozy has stressed his racist and security policies, in relation to the Roms in particular. But also in the last few weeks, the government has tried to make people forget the social questions by advancing the terrorist danger. But without much success.
Dissatisfaction is growing and the situation is "explosive". Faced with the success of the demonstrations and strike days, the government has not moved and says that nothing will be changed in its proposal. The crisis and the debt are poor excuses to justify the reform.
Sarkozy and his government want their reform. Faced with the determination of the government, many workers know that to win it’s necessary to impose social determination.
Today, in numerous sectors, it is time for an all-out strike. For example in the RATP (Paris public transport system), the SNCF (French national railway company), but also in the chemical and engineering industries, there is a possibility of a continuing srike from October 12. We know that the next day of strikes and demonstrations, on October 12, will be a success. And today, the idea that we can win is increasing.The state of the movement
It is, at the moment, a very political movement. The strike rates are strong but not exceptional. The self-organisation of the movement today, is very low. General assemblies in the various sectors are have very low participation.
It is a united movement. There is an inter-union coordinating committee, which gives the calendar of mobilisations but which is pushed by the intransigence of the government and by the very radical militant teams.
This movement is characterised by a massive refusal to accept the pension reform, a spectacular mistrust against power and against Sarkozy, but we don’t know what will be the end result of this confrontation. Everything is possible.On the political level
The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) participates with the whole French left including the Socialist Party ... in a united campaign against the pensions reform .
This united campaign, launched by Attac and the Copernic Foundation, is based on the demand of a pension at 60 years for all and the withdrawal of the law.
Although all the left agrees on these two demands, there are several disagreements.
The disagreement over demands is in particular with the Socialist Party. It agrees with the demands of 60 years old as the retirement age but defends the idea that workers must work longer to get a full pension. And so it voted with right deputies [members of parliament] for the increase of years [from 40 to 41.5 years] that must be worked to qualify for the full pension.
There are also disagreements about the strategy for winning against the government and obtaining the withdrawal of the draft law. There are disagreements with the Socialist Party but also with the Communist Party and Parti de gauche [Left Party]. The Socialist Party asks us to wait for the next presidential elections in 2012, and the other political forces demand a referendum, turning the class struggle into an institutional question. They are all refusing to support the social confrontation that is necessary to win.The NPA's profile
Since the beginning of the mobilisations, the NPA has worked in two directions:
- First, to be completely in the united campaign, defending retirement at 60 years' old with the full pension. We also demand the withdrawal of the law. Olivier Besancenot is the NPA spokesperson who has participated at the most united meetings around the country.
- For us, the main demand is the redistribution of wealth and the sharing of work. Our profile is clear, since last May we have been working for a massive social and political confrontation.
- As the government is very unpopular, one of our demands are to sack labour minister Eric Woerth and President Sarkozy.
[Sandra Demarcq is a member of the executive committee of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France, and a member of the leadership of the Fourth International. This article first appeared on the website of the Fourth International's International Viewpoint.]
 The right to strike is embodied in the French constitution. Trades unions have to give a “warning” (préavis) of a strike for the workers to be considered legally on strike. In these sectors there has been a préavis for a reconductible or all-out strike, that is one that is revoted each day by the workers.
 [The intersyndical brings together the five trade union federations, including two usually classed on the “right wing”: CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC and CFTC; and the radical union SUD Solidaires, with important implantation in the postal, transport and health sectors, FSU and UNSA (teachers and public sector).
France: Huge protests against pension law
By Chris Latham
October 17, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- Workers and students mobilised in their millions on October 12 in the fourth and largest day of action in the past month against laws that will reduce workers’ pension entitlements. The protests and strikes came as the Senate passed aspects of the pension bill that will see an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 years of age and increase the period of time workers must work to receive a full pension.
The protests show growing polarisation over who should pay the price for the economic crisis in the lead up to national strikes on October 16 and 19.
As with previous protests, the protests’ size has been heavily contested. The government has tried to downplay the level of public support, while unions said the protests reflect deep public anger.
Unions estimated 3.5 million people took part in 244 protests across France, an increase on the 3 million people estimated to have joined the September 23 and October 2 days of action. The interior ministry, however, claimed only 1.23 million people took part in the protests.
Unions said the growth mainly came from private sector workers and students. The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) said much larger numbers of private sector workers took part in the strike, including non-union members, than previous ones. One of the most significant developments took place in the oil industry, with strikes at 11 of France’s 12 oil refineries.
There was also a large increase in the number of university and high school students taking part, with tens of thousands joining protests. At least 400 schools were closed due to staff and student action.
The media has made much of the entry of students into the movement, raising the spectre of the mass protests in May-June 1968 that shook France.
Adding to the threat of student protests was the decision of union members in industries such as oil, rail, ports and some public services to start indefinite strike action. The strike by oil workers poses a real possibility of substantial fuel shortages.
The CGT and radical union confederation Solidaires are calling for the strike movement to spread. However, other confederations have raised concerns that intensifying the movement risked alienating the broader public and providing President Nicolas Sarkozy with a chance to rebuild his flagging electoral fortunes through a shattering defeat of the union struggle.
French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) has opposed indefinite strikes and said its members in the rail system would not join any. The BBC reported on October 12 that French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) secretary-general Francois Chereque said: “The large majority of employees cannot afford to pay for repeated days of strikes.”
However, Solidaires argued: “A few days of strikes to not lose years of free time is worth it, right? The strike will cost money … But the implementation of this bill will cost more!”
The Senate approved the rise in the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 on October 8. Failure by the movement to life the intensity of the struggle will likely cause the government to grow more confident in its ability to ride the protest and strike wave out.
However, with 67% public support for an intensified industrial campaign, and the momentum built since the campaign’s start in April, the unions are in a strong position to escalate the movement.
An October 12 Solidaires statement said: “There is no time to lose: now is the time to harden and expand the movement to win.”
The media’s immediate focus is on the outcome of the government’s attempt to wind back France’s welfare state, but there is far more at stake.
The determination of the government to cut pensions so soon after it provided huge bailouts to the banks and business to help them recover from the global financial crisis risks sparking a far deeper radicalisation.
If the unions and social movements defeat the pension bill, it could be the signal for them to begin an offensive against the government’s pro-capitalist policies.
The inter-union coalition, which has led campaign, met on October 14 to plan further actions. The response to the October 16 and 19 strike calls, in the wake of the big October 12 mobilisations and the start of some indefinite strikes, will be important tests for the movement.